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Juxtaposition

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07700 900184: Hey, it's Dan, I got a new number. Long time no talk. How are ya Johnny boy? When does ur term start?

John: Tomorrow - I’m on my way now.

John pressed send; didn't bother saving the new number. His eyes were drawn again to watching the world rush past him outside the taxi window. Or was it him doing the rushing? It was difficult to tell.

His phone buzzed in his hands.

 

07700 900184: U excited??

John’s fingers hovered over his phone screen for long moments as he tried to parse the uncomfortable cocktail of emotions he had choked down in the upheaval of moving schools. He found that it was impossible.

 

John: Not rly.

He turned his attention back to the world beyond the window and closed his eyes. The red glow of his eyelids was a blank canvas splashed with memories, some recent, some fading, some barely there at all.

There was his mother, with his sister beside her, watching his train leave the platform. His mum forcing a smile, waving. His sister, fixedly not looking at their mum beside her, stood tall and proud, fixing John with the look she reserved for times when they both had to endure something terrible. Stoic. That was the word their father had described her as, as they stood by his bedside. It was a noble attempt at humour in the darkest hour of all their lives. That look had first surfaced then.

You’ll be fine. I know it. You’ve always been so brave. Stoic… little Viking, even when you were a kid. Harry the Terrible, Harry the Great…” Then to him, quietly, privately. “Take care of them for me, John.”

That all seemed like a lifetime ago, in the light of day. But the small, dark, cramped hours of the mornings, before the sun, his wounds didn't care about the time passed, the progress made. The anniversary was soon. He tried not to think about the fact that he’d be away at school when it came. He was supposed to be at home, taking care of his family, as he’d promised.

But he didn’t know if he could bear being at home. He felt like filth to admit it, even to himself, but his house had become less and less like the home he remembered over the past few months. There had been so many rows, and so much bickering, and crying, and the walls had seemed to drip with the barely suppressed anger of a family being wrenched slowly, wilfully apart by something that should have united them. And when John’s letter of acceptance from the prestigious boarding school in Bedfordshire had slipped unassumingly through their letterbox, the quiet, forced civility that followed was almost worse.

John had felt so guilty on that train, as it had pulled away from the platform. Guilty that he was going; even guiltier that a part of him couldn't wait to be gone. He watched as his mum and sister got smaller and smaller as the train carried him away from them, away from that life, into the unknown.

Despite the substantial discount the scholarship earned him, and the modest bursary on top, John was painfully aware of how many digits these two years of schooling were about to drain from his mother's bank account. The deal was that he'd pay part of it back from his inheritance once he turned eighteen, and his mum had assured him that it wasn’t that much, that she’d expected it to be more, but John still felt a strong greed. He desperately wanted this opportunity, wanted it so much it had become all he’d thought about, so much he'd applied to the school without telling a soul - but he didn’t want to be an inconvenience to his family. And now with his mother losing her job not two weeks previously... he forced his mind away.

That was all behind him now. That was what he tried to tell himself. Don’t feel guilty; you earned this, you deserve this just as much as anyone else, and mum and Harry are proud of you. Make the most of it. Head down, no close friendships: get in, get out, get the grades.

John noted that Dan hadn't replied to his text. That was fine. John had avoided discussing moving schools with his friends. So did they. 

“Not long now, son.” The voice of the driver reached into John’s head and heaved him out into the taxi; he was so deep that it took him a couple of moments to register that he had been spoken to.

“Sorry?”

“Just saying that we’ll be there soon. You’re a bit of a quiet one, aren’t you?”

John smiled into the rear view mirror. “Just a bit tired. Had an early start today.”

“I can imagine. First year at Saint Bart's, is it?”

“Yeah, I'm going into Lower Sixth.”

“I had a friend whose daughter went to the school in the next town. Started about the same age as you, I think…” the taxi driver proceeded to tell a rambling story to which John paid no attention. Something about hockey matches and A-Level results. He let his mind wander.

“…are you?” the driver finished, what seemed like several minutes later, shaking John out of his thoughts again.

“Sorry?”

“You’re not from ‘round here, if I’m correct..?”

“Oh, no, I’m from London.”

“Ooh, well. I imagine life is going to be very different up here for you, then. Here we are.”

The car turned off the winding, potholed lane into a pair of open iron gates, ornate and rusting, which led onto a long gravel driveway lined with horse chestnut trees. At the end of the driveway was another gate between two small brick buildings, and it was here that the taxi finally stopped. John opened the door and almost fell out, eager to welcome the fresh air into his lungs after the journey. The taxi driver opened the boot and helped John lift his stuffed suitcase onto the ground. John stuck his hand into his pocket, feeling for cash.

"Don't worry, son," the driver interjected. "Most of the kids have a tab with the company and pay all their journeys off at the end of the year." When John looked at him blankly, he continued. "If you tell me your student number, it'll go on your school bill, your old man can pay it for you when he pays for the rest come June, eh?" He winked at John, expecting him to be in on some inside joke of wealthy fathers and schools that hand you a bill with your exam results. John was not. “Well, I hope you have a great term, lad," the driver finished, filling the awkward silence, "and I may well see you again in a few weeks to take you home.”

“Thank you,” John said, and turned towards the gate. As he heard the car pull away, it struck him that he had no idea where he was.

***

Several sets of equally confusing and unhelpful directions later, John finally found himself looking up at a tall, grand, red-brick house. The sign by the door proclaimed it to be Doyle boarding house, built in 1895. It was a tall affair, strangled with ivy, and with muffled music drifting from a window somewhere.

Right, thought John.

He shifted the rucksack on his shoulders, trying to avoid the sensitive spot, adjusted the strap of the sports bag across his chest, moved the handle of his suitcase from his right hand to his left, and walked up to the door.

He pushed on it, but with no result. Shit. There was an electronic key pad to the left of the doorframe. Double shit! Now what?

To John's mercy, the door was pushed open from the inside just as John was reaching for his phone, smacking him in the chest. A small handful of boys a few years younger than him peered round the door and apologised profusely, before moving aside to let him pass.  John muttered a “Thanks,” and the door swung shut behind him.

He found himself in the dim foyer. It smelt not unpleasantly of clean laundry, old wood and dust. The walls were covered with notice boards, upon which were pinned pieces of paper bearing words such as 'DINNER TIMES - AUTUMN TERM', 'EXEAT WEEKEND RULES' and 'OPPOSITE SEX NOT PERMITTED BEYOND COMMON AREAS ON GROUND FLOOR'. Directly in front of him was a staircase that wound upwards to, presumably, bedrooms - Or are they called dormitories? I feel like I'm learning a whole new language... Underneath the staircase was a door, held ajar by a rubber doorstop, and labelled with some Clip-art text that read 'MR LESTRADE'S HOUSE - PLEASE KNOCK'. There were voices, laughs, thuds and creaks all over the house; the sounds of strangers settling back into the routine of living together. John had read the school prospectus back to front, and when he'd found out he was to be assigned this boarding house, he'd all but memorised its page. One of Saint Bartholomew's School's twelve boarding houses - a welcoming home away from home for between fifty and sixty boys, aged between thirteen and eighteen, headed by housemaster Gregory Lestrade. The house prides itself on being one of the oldest buildings in the school, its warm, homely atmosphere, and John Watson can't believe he's standing in it.

He heard a sudden laugh come from one of the doors on his left. He ditched his heavy bags on the floor, walked up to the door, and listened. Muffled chatter was coming from inside.

John pushed open the door to reveal a small, comfortable-looking room, crammed with sofas of all sizes, colours and materials, a table football set, a pool table, a television at the end of the room, and a tired-looking piano. As he had hoped, there were two boys lounging on one of the sofas, who looked up when he entered. John pushed the door open a little more and began.

“Hi. Erm, I’m  new, and I just got here, and-”

“John, right? John… ugh, what was it? John…” one of the boys on the sofa interrupted, clicking his fingers in annoyance.

“Watson? John Watson.” 

“That’s the one,” the boy beamed. They got up and walked over to him. They looked to be about John’s age. “I’m Mike, and this is Ollie.” Mike put a hand on the shoulder of the so-far silent other boy. “John, come with me, I’ll take you to your room. Welcome to Doyle."

***

Mike had insisted on carrying John’s sports bag, and so the long climb up the stairs of Doyle house was just about bearable. Mike was stocky, but taller than John - but then, being taller than John wasn’t hard. He had brown hair, an open face, and readily smiling eyes, and John found that he liked him.

John’s legs had begun to ache a couple of flights up, and he was trying not to pant too obviously, while dreading having to do this no doubt  countless times a day from now on. Mike, on the other hand, was chatting away merrily, without even a trace of breathlessness in his voice.

“Lestrade has assigned me to be your buddy for the first few days. This is only his second year here so he's still very keen on impressing the head master with that sort of pastoral care crap.”

"Really? He's almost as new as me..."

"Mhm. And, like him when he first started, you've got some new lingo to learn, John!" They came to a landing. John silently thanked god that the stairs were over, at least for now. Mike strode off into a winding corridor. "All teachers are known by their surnames, that sort of thing. Not to their face, mind you. I found it hard to get used to at first as well, but I've been here so long that I forget it's weird.

“Anyway, we don’t get many new pupils in the sixth form. We usually get the year tens to buddy the new year nines, so Lestrade thought he’d better do the same for you. Not that he thinks you’re as incompetent as some of those foetuses, but as you’ve probably already seen,” Mike yanked open a door and continued, “- it’s pretty easy to get lost 'round here, at first anyway. By the end of the week you’ll feel like you’ve been here forever. Just be glad you’ve only got two years of this place; I will have done seven by the time we're done with A Levels. Oh,” Mike stopped for a second, and pointed to a door on their right. “This is the bathroom. My advice is to get up before the rising bell in the mornings so you can have a shower before everyone else. It’s much more peaceful.” He gave John a smile and continued. They entered an even narrower corridor lined with cream doors on either side.

“This is the corridor with all the lower sixths’ rooms,” he explained. “Luckily, all sixth formers have our own rooms – well, I say 'our own'; us lower sixth don’t have to sleep in the dorms like the little 'uns, but we do have to share a room. If you stick around, John, you'll get your own room next year. What a privilege," he said sarcastically. "Anywho, this is where our whistle-stop tour ends for today. You’re in number twenty-one, right at the end, here.”

Sure enough, Mike stopped in front of a door with the number twenty-one in the top right hand corner, at the very end of the corridor. While all the other doors had various bits of paper stuck to them - pictures, magazine clippings, doodles, hand-drawn name cards – this door was completely bare. Mike pushed it open.

There was an old fashioned, double-hung window in the wall opposite the door, just under which was a mini-fridge. The left and right sides of the room were symmetrical: there was an elevated bed against each wall, a desk underneath, with an adjustable lamp and a plastic chair to boot. There was a wardrobe and a chest of drawers against the walls at the end of the beds. All the furniture was made out of generic-looking, lightly coloured wood - apart from the bed, which was constructed from unfriendly metal. The rooms also looked as if a bomb had gone off in there, but John barely had time to register this before Mike said,

“Sherlock, I’ve brought you your new roommate.”

There was a movement from the bed on the left side of the room. John did a double take. He hadn’t noticed the other boy in the room - he had been so perfectly still, lying on his back on his bed. Now, he was sitting bolt upright. He took in Mike with one swift glance and remarked in a baritone drawl, all tight consonants and a lifetime of private education,

“When did your barber go bust, Stamford? Last week?” John stared at Mike, who was rapidly turning a disturbing hue of red. "Or was letting your mother near your head with the kitchen scissors a stylistic decision?"

“None of your beeswax.” Mike responded, voice too jovial to be natural. There was a heavy pause in which Mike regained his composure, the other boy – what was it Mike called him? Sherlock? – shifted in his bed in order to see out of the window at the sound of a car outside, and John continued to not know where to look. Mike sighed in exasperation and broke the silence. “Anyway, Sherlock, this is -”

“John Watson, I know,” interjected Sherlock. What kind of a name is Sherlock? John had to keep himself from snickering each time it was said. “Lestrade’s back, finally. Oh. He’s just found out about his wife’s affair and… yes; she’s moved out and they will be getting a divorce within the month. How dull.”

Mike said, "Wait, what? Mrs Lestrade's moved out?" But John only half heard him, as he watched Sherlock turn around again and climb off his bed in one impossibly fluid movement, feet barely touching the bars of the ladder. He was tall and skinny, with a mess of dark, curly hair. He was dressed in a strangely formal, light blue shirt tucked into a pair of dark jeans held up with a black belt boasting an expensive-looking buckle. His shoes were the pointy, Italian leather type. John could have seen his face in their shine. He held out his hand. John took it.

“Sherlock Holmes.” Said the boy courteously, shaking John’s hand. “My condolences.”

Condolences? John was thrown. He opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out.

Sherlock began busying himself on the right side of the room, moving the detritus that obviously belonged to him off John’s new bed and desk. He cleared his throat. "I regret that you saw all of this. You will come to realise very promptly that I am by no means what one might call a tidy person.”

“You can say that again,” muttered Mike. Sherlock shot him a look out of the corner of his eye.

“How do you feel about the violin, John?” he inquired.

“Sorry?” John heard himself ask.

“I often play the violin when I’m thinking and sometimes I don’t talk for days on end. Would that bother you?”

John felt his mouth open and close uselessly. He looked questioningly at Mike, who felt like his only anchor to sanity.

“It’s true." Mike said, then lowered his voice to a whisper. "That’s one of the reasons why he was so difficult to find a roommate for." John's concern at that statement must have been visible on his face, because Mike's expression also fell. "Ah. You didn't know that. It's no biggie - "

"All of them complained to Lestrade in June if they got assigned to me for this year and got themselves reallocated." Sherlock interrupted from the other side of the room. John looked back at Mike questioningly. Mike slapped him on the shoulder in what John imagined he'd intended to be a comforting gesture. John was not comforted.

He looked back to Sherlock. “Are you good at the violin?” he asked.

Sherlock stopped midway through putting a book on top of the fridge and turned to him. John almost laughed at the expression on his face, serious and utterly offended at the question.

“Very.”

“Then, no, I don’t think the violin would bother me at all, Mr Holmes.” John smirked, imitating Sherlock’s old fashioned formalities of speech. Sherlock didn’t pick up on the joke, apparently, as he replied earnestly,

“Oh, Sherlock, please,” Mike and John laughed, a little of the tension dissipating.

“Sherlock, are you doing rugby this term?” Mike said, changing the subject.

“Of course not, you know I’d rather throw myself off Doyle's roof.” Sherlock retorted.

The two of them launched into a heated debate about the pros and cons of a ‘purely testosterone-fuelled game, barely more than an organised fight, charging around with several people trying to forcibly bring you to the cold, wet, muddy ground, all for the sake of a ball’  - in Sherlock’s words. John set to investigating his side of the room a little further.

There was already a duvet and pillow on his bed, no doubt provided by the school, but without duvet or pillow covers, which John had been instructed to bring from home. He unzipped his suitcase, found both of those items, clambered up onto his bed and, with a great deal of cursing under his breath, realising choosing to do this most undignified of tasks in the company of his new peers probably wasn't a wise move, managed to wrangle his old, navy blue pillow and duvet covers into position. There. His side of the room looked a bit more homely now.

He jumped down and unpacked the rest of his things into his wardrobe and chest of drawers. He discovered a full-length mirror on the inside of the door of his wardrobe and two plug sockets in the wall behind his desk.

Unpacking didn’t take him long; John had resolved to travel as light as he could, and he didn’t have all that many possessions anyway. When he was done, he climbed back onto his bed and sat with his back against the wall and observed his new home with resignation.

Mike interrupted his thoughts. “Alright then, John?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Great. Sherlock; dinner’s at normal time, and for God’s sake, go with John, at least for the next few days, so he knows how it all works and where everything is.” Sherlock made a face. “I know, but please?”

“Fine.”

“Good, thanks.” Mike turned to leave, but spun around again. “Oh, and by the way, Gregson wants to see us all in the common room at seven, he told me to tell everyone. And John, I’m in room nineteen, if you need me, or if Sherlock gets too… well, Sherlock. See you at dinner," he said, pointing at Sherlock. "Both of you."

“Who’s Gregson?” John asked as Mike left.

“Our tutor.” said Sherlock distractedly.

“Tutor?”

“Yes. We have the pleasure of meeting with him every Sunday night to discuss useless things like how we are, or some such rubbish. It varies. He’ll want to give us our timetables tonight though, and will lecture us on how we must start the year as we mean to go on, and to set a good example to the younger years, and to take our responsibilities as Lower Sixth seriously, and so on and so forth. It’s a bore, honestly. Each year group in each house has a separate tutor and we got landed with Gregson. It’s a disgrace.”

“Oh.” During their conversation, Sherlock had been preparing slides of the gunk that was in the numerous Petri dishes, and now he settled at his desk, back poker straight, and studied them closely under the microscope. John watched him with interest.

“What-?”

“Shh.” John was taken aback, but kept quiet. It became clear after a couple of minutes that Sherlock wasn’t going to speak again for some time, so John got out his ancient laptop and started it up.

About half an hour later, Sherlock abruptly stood up, making John jump. He put on a long, black, billowing coat and strode across the room. John looked up.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Out,” called Sherlock as he opened the door and marched away into the corridor.

John sighed. He could certainly see why other boys before him had complained about being roomed with this moody creature, but John himself wasn’t inclined to request to move just yet. He didn’t mind quiet; he was grateful, in fact, that he hadn’t been assigned to a boy who chattered aimlessly and relentlessly about the first thing that popped into his vacant head. He'd had enough of that with his old friends. And he staunchly did not think about the fact that he just thought of the friends he'd known since he could barely read as 'old'. Perhaps not having a relationship with his roommate would be good for his work ethic. In, out, get the grades.

John paused the film he had been watching, took out his earphones and closed his laptop. Reluctantly, he fetched his sketchpad and pencils from his rucksack and settled back onto his bed.

His therapist had told him to keep up with the daily drawings, even though he was now in a place where he would get barely any privacy. She argued that it was now more important than ever that he keep going with his sketches, being with strangers and in situations he wasn’t used to. John wasn't convinced but owed her at least an effort. So he took the opportunity of Sherlock’s absence to do as his therapist said. Because he wanted to get better, he really did. And she had helped, in the past. He couldn't go back to how he was.

Some days, John knew what he was going to draw well before he had taken his pad out. Other days, like this one, John sat with it open on his knee, pencil ghosting out images and shapes for a long time, unable to represent the maze of his thoughts, how his synapses had sparked that day. So he began to sketch out his view from his lofty new bed. He roughed out the metal of the frame, Sherlock’s one across from his, and a little of the view from out of the window. The sun was setting, casting deep orange light into their little room and onto his legs.

He dropped his pencil. That was all for today. The drawing was unfinished, still just lines and curves on the page, but John didn’t care. That was how he was feeling today; unfinished. So it fit.

John lethargically got down from his bed and stood in front of the window, abandoning the sketchpad on the mattress. The rays of the setting sun warmed his face as he looked out. There was a tree an arm’s reach from the house, one branch winding across John’s view. He could see across the road to a playing field, and beyond that, a wood. Summer was coming to an end, and everything was glowing in the early September evening light.

There was a knock at the door. John jumped, startled out of wherever he’d been in his head. He wiped the wetness from his cheeks – when did that get there? – and answered.

“Yeah?”

Mike popped his head round the door. “Sherlock in?”

“No, he went out a while ago. I don’t know where.”

“Ah, that’s normal, don’t worry – he’ll be back at some point,” Mike smiled. “Coming to dinner?”

Chapter Text

Mike introduced John to some other Doyle boys - they all smiled at John as he and Mike sat down on the long, wooden benches. It was roast chicken on offer that night, something John hadn’t eaten for a long time. It was something his dad had always cooked.

The dining hall itself was almost as sumptuous as the food it served. It had a grand, domed ceiling, which captured the chatter of the several hundred pupils, and made it echo, so the room overflowed with the warm voices and happy laughter of friends reuniting after the long summer holidays. The lights were low, and cast a glow, rather like the one John had watched earlier from the setting sun, around the room. He found it easy to get lost in the talk of the boys at his table - stories he didn't know and jokes he didn't get. John tried his hardest to commit the names of all those introduced to him over dinner to memory, but it was difficult. He was tired, and after a while, one face swapped names with another, and another, until he gave up.

He had just put down his spoon after finishing his jam sponge when Mike looked at his watch and half jumped out of his seat.

“John! We’ve got to go, it’s nearly seven! Gregson'll have our heads!” Exclaimed Mike, getting up. The two of them fetched a couple of other Doyle Lower Sixth boys from another table on their way out and they all half-jogged back to house.

When they burst into the common room - how different it looked now to when John had found Mike and Ollie in it just hours previously - they came across a middle-aged, dough-faced, balding man sitting in one of the softer sofas, looking as if he was going to sink down the back of it any second. Three other boys were seated on the sofa opposite, looking smug at John and the others' late arrival. Their expressions made John's stomach sink in anticipation. But surely we can't get punished before school had even started properly -

“Late!” barked Gregson from the sofa.

“Sorry sir,” mumbled Mike and the other boys, John hastily following suit.

“You know I can’t stand tardiness. I expect better.” Gregson looked suspiciously at John. “And who’s this?”

“This is John Watson, he’s new this year, sir,” answered Mike on John’s behalf, for which John was immensely grateful.

“Ah yes, Mr Watson. I remember now, Greg did say something about a new boy. Well, sit down, all of you!” The four late boys scrambled to obey. “I think we’re one short…” mused Gregson. “Where’s that devil, Holmes?” No one had an answer. “Never mind, we’ll start without him.”

***

After they had been dismissed, John meandered back up to his and Sherlock’s room. He paused by the door. Long, mournful notes of a violin were coming from inside. John opened the door very slowly and very quietly, so as not to disturb Sherlock. John found him standing at their window, playing the violin absent-mindedly, staring out into the darkness. Sherlock was completely correct about his own abilities; he was extremely good at the violin. Even from behind, with layman's eyes, John could see that he coaxed the notes from the instrument with graceful ease, and John was entranced. The melody he was playing was excruciatingly sad, and vaguely familiar.

He must have made the floorboard squeak, because Sherlock halted, mid-note. The boy set down his violin on the windowsill. “Good evening John,” he said. “Have fun with Gregson?”

John half-laughed as he entered the room. “He was just as awful as you said – patronising, and grumpy as fuck. And you got his lecture right almost word for word… Oh, I’ve got your timetable for you, by the way.”

John walked over to his bed, kicking off his shoes as he did so, and held out the slip of paper for Sherlock, who took and scanned it. John sat on his bed and took a look at his for the first time. He had a good handful of free periods each week, and his first lesson of the year was biology, first thing tomorrow morning. “What subjects do you take?” John asked.

“Biology, chemistry, Latin and anthropology.”

“Oh, we might be in some of the same classes then. I take biology and chemistry too.”

“And English and maths, I know. However, we will not be in the same classes, as I take biology and chemistry with the Upper Sixth.”

“How did you know which other subjects I take? Stalker,” John joked.

“Oh, please, not you too. You don’t know how boring it is to be called a stalker so often. No, you want to be a doctor, so biology, chemistry and maths are obvious. You brought quite a few books with you to school, despite you knowing that we have a rather extensive library here, so you must have an interest in literature - and it goes beyond the academis. You have formed some sentimental attachment to those particular ones you have in your suitcase.”

“…Oh,” managed John. He frowned. How the fuck did he know all this? “Wait. Earlier, how did you know about Mike and his haircut? And the housemaster and his wife, just by taking one look at them? And how did you my name?”

“I didn’t know, I saw. Stamford's predicament was obvious. That haircut of his is new, but not done at a barber's. The jaggedness of the cut above his ears and at the nape of his neck made it painfully obvious. I thought even an idiot like you would have been able to see it.”

“Thanks!” John exclaimed. Maybe he would consider moving rooms after all.

“Oh, don’t be like that, practically everyone’s an idiot. And Lestrade got out of his car looking haggard. I could see his red eyes from up here, and the fact that he didn’t have his wedding ring on. Plus, I've heard him and his wife fighting for months, it's been a long time coming. As to your identity, do you not think I would have looked at the rooming list to find out who I am to be lumped with this year?”

“Right…” said John, unimpressed. Sherlock turned to look at him, visibly confused.

“You’re sceptical,” he said.

“Well, yes, to be honest.” replied John.

“Fine.” Sherlock said, with resolve. “Here’s what I know about you, three hours after meeting you.”

John settled against the wall expectantly. "Oh, please. Fire away."

Sherlock narrowed his eyes at him, but began. “You lost someone close you not very long ago, you're still mourning. I know a mourning person when I see one. On top of that, you also feel guilty for leaving your family behind to go to a posh boarding school in the countryside, something completely unheard of where you live. You are still recovering from a complex injury to your left shoulder, and your therapist thinks that the reason you are taking so long to heal physically is because it is at least partially psychosomatic, and they're right, I’m afraid. That leads me to believe you acquired it at the same time of your loss, which subsequently leads me to believe that you were somehow involved. Bet there's a lot of guilt there as well, whether rational or irrational I can't quite decide yet."

 John’s mouth had fallen open and he closed it quickly, his face darkening. “How-?”

“I’m not finished. You’re here on a scholarship at least, possibly even a bursary on top, so you are desperate to achieve beyond what would have been expected of you, despite needing therapy as I mentioned earlier. Do you want to know what I learnt about you while you were at the tutor meeting?”

“I-”

“You have a younger brother. You didn’t used to get on with him when you were little, I presume; brothers rarely do. You didn’t really mind leaving your old school, as is shown by your lack of desire to keep in touch with your friends from back home, or your family, come to think of it. Your phone has flashed multiple times with incoming texts; Harry Watson, Mum Watson. You organise your contacts by surname, you're making it easy for me. An unsaved number - you mustn't care very much about that person, am I right? One interesting thing - nothing from your father. Suggests he's absent, doesn't care all that much about you - or dead, of course."

John felt his eyes widen at that addition. Sherlock narrowed his eyes, but there was some kind of triumph playing at the corners of his mouth.

"Aha. I thought so. Dead father, then." John made a noise of protest, but Sherlock carried on. "Anyway, you checked the screen, and upon seeing who they were from, put the phone down again and ignored them. And no, I haven’t touched any of your belongings or gone through your things. I haven’t seen your Facebook. This is pure observation, John. It’s what I do.”

John was speechless. This boy, this stuck-up, pretentious, posh twat, had just laid his life out in front of him. All his secrets, all the things he’d tried to cover up, to hide, that no one outside of his family and his therapist knew, had the right to know - they were TV listings in a newspaper to him. A tube map. A menu in a café. Uncaring, merciless facts.

So why aren't I angry?

“You’re right,” he said quietly. Sherlock turned away from John and made to climb up onto his bed. “Except for one thing.” Sherlock froze, one foot on the ladder.

“What? What is it?” The boy hissed, and turned around, eyes raking over John, trying to find the mistake. John was pleased at how vexed he seemed to be at his own error. He drew out the pause before he revealed the answer for comedic dramatic effect, but he couldn't keep a creeping tinge of sadness from his tone.

“Harry’s my sister.”

“Ah!” Sherlock exclaimed in frustration, turning back to his bed and climbing up, muttering to himself. “The younger brother’s a sister, short for Harriet, I presume - should have known, should have seen…”

He crawled across the mattress but halted again at the sound of John inhaling sharply. His face was displaying a combination of amazement, confusion, and sadness – no, loneliness, or… homesickness? Nostalgia?

“Erm,” said Sherlock hesitantly, unable to read John's face.

“No, it’s fine, it was… amazing, I’m just-”

“Really?” Sherlock’s face lit up.

“Yeah, I mean, incredible, but -”

“That’s not usually what people say,”

“What do they usually say?”

“Piss off." John laughed, surprised. “Your father used to read those books to you, the ones you brought with you,” said Sherlock.

John nodded.

“Hmm. There’s just one thing I can’t work out,” Sherlock began.

John smiled a little. “Oh yeah?”

“How he died.”

“Oh.” John stopped smiling for a split second and swallowed, before instantly brightening again. “Now you’re getting nosy. See if you can get it, if you’re such a mind-reader, but if not, I’ll tell you some other time.”

“I’m not a mind-reader, John, I -”

“I know, I know, I was only joking!” John appeased, getting down from his bed and taking out his pyjamas. He began to get changed. Sherlock, realising what John was doing, lay down on his bed and watched the ceiling closely.

He felt, strangely, as if he should try to make John feel more comfortable, as he had obviously been upset somewhat by Sherlock discussing his home life. Not apologise, exactly – Sherlock made a point of almost never apologising for anything.

It was something Sherlock had never done before – willingly reveal details of his own life to somebody without being forced. Other people seemed to do it incessantly, which was something that annoyed Sherlock greatly. Why the constant need to blurt out the first half-formed thing that drifted idly into their vacant skulls? But this boy, this John Watson, hadn’t done so as yet. Beside the details Sherlock had deduced from him, he was private, insular almost. This, Sherlock supposed, was understandable, seeing as John’s home life didn’t seem to have been particularly pleasant recently. 

Sherlock didn’t know precisely why he felt as if he should have to balance the situation – he’d never done before, and had had no urge to. More people than Sherlock cared to remember had felt uncomfortable, angry, upset and vulnerable as a result of Sherlock uncovering their secrets with such ease, and he had been punched, shouted at, sworn at and much more for it. But he’d never seen a person react the way John had done. John had looked… impressed by Sherlock’s deductions, and there was another emotion there that Sherlock hadn’t been able to place at the time. Upon reflection, Sherlock realised that he’d misjudged that other dominant emotion showing itself through John’s body language. It wasn't sadness; it was relief. This intrigued Sherlock. It was an inconsequential detail, but it was different, and different wasn’t dull.

“I don’t have a mother.” He blurted. John stopped rustling about below for a moment.

“I’m sorry.”

“And my father is alive but I haven’t heard from him for years.”

“Oh.”

“I was the one who broke up their marriage. He was having an affair. It was obvious. With the cleaner. He tried to cover it up, and had been quite successful in doing so for quite some time, but I knew. Obviously. When I realised the gravity of the situation, I told my brother, who took the matter into his own hands. I was glad to see him go. I was six.”

It was a little while later, when John had got into bed and was reading a book, when Sherlock continued. “My mother passed away when I was twelve. She had thyroid cancer. It was much unexpected.”

John took this in without a word, then asked, “Who looks after you, then?”

“When I’m not at school, Mrs Hudson, primarily. She was a good friend of my mother’s and has been our housekeeper for as long as I can remember. My brother pays for my school fees and everything else, so one could say he looks after me too, but from afar.”

“Oh, right.” A pause. "Why are you telling me all this?"

Sherlock frowned. He wasn't sure he had an answer to that, but before he could form one, the door creaked open and a man put his head into the room.

John hadn’t seen him before. He looked to be quite young for a teacher, no older than mid thirties. His dark, close-cropped hair had silvering streaks that matched his grey eyes.

“Time for bed, boys,” the man said in a gravelly, likeable voice, free of the marks of upper class that marked the voices of most of the students. “Ah, John. Sorry I haven’t been able to say hello to you before now, I had some personal stuff to take care of.” He came over to John’s bed, and John leaned over the side to shake his outstretched hand. “Greg Lestrade, housemaster. I’m sure Miss Marple here will take good care of you, won’t you, Sherlock?”

“Yes, sir.” replied Sherlock flatly.

“That’s what I like to hear.” He walked back over to the doorway. “Lights out now, guys. Goodnight,”

And he was gone, shutting the door softly behind him, leaving John to the darkness and his dreams.

Chapter Text

John was free. The lane was stretching out ahead of him, the headlights only capturing a little of the darkness ahead, leaving so much unknown, so much waiting to be discovered. The stars were out, the moon clear and heavy, not yet risen to its full height, still weighing down on the horizon. He felt powerful and in control. He knew where they were going, and where they had come from, and he felt as if the future was tangible. It was cheesy, he knew that, but he couldn’t stop the grin from blossoming on his face as he turned to the passenger seat. His father gave him an encouraging smile in return, before his face changed, turning in a second. John felt as if all was in slow motion. He knew what was coming, but had no power to stop it. The blinding light, the wail of crunching metal, the pain, the heat, the screams - oh, God, the screams - sounds that were not human, that no human should ever hear, that he knew were his own, and his father’s, the one who was always so calm, so collected, so steady, screaming in the dark like an animal.

But it was just John’s screams now, silent, ripping his throat open with long claws, and it’s dark - so dark - where am I? Where’s mum - Harry - where am I? He dragged in breath after heaving breath, and with each exhale came a sound like breaking. He fell back onto his pillow and buried his face in it, and he was suffocating but he didn’t care.

“Go back to sleep, John.” It was Sherlock’s voice, calm and quiet. John opened his eyes to see him standing by the window again, in pyjamas and a dressing gown. He was looking out into the world beyond the window, bathed in argentate moonlight.

“It was only a dream. Go back to sleep, now, John. It’s alright.” John clasped his eyes shut. His breathing slowed, and gradually, he fell into a dreamless sleep.

***

John’s phone woke him with a harsh tune that he had always hated. He parted his head from the pillow with difficulty and tapped on the screen. It was a quarter to seven, and he had three unread texts, one from his mum, one from Dan, and one from his sister. They were all sent yesterday, and, annoyingly, as Sherlock had pointed out, John had indeed seen his phone flashing with each one, but had chosen to ignore them. He silenced the alarm and sat up.

The sun was rising, the sky sliding from a delicate lilac to the disappointing blankness of the September day. Sherlock was lying on his bed, on top of the duvet, eyes open, studying the ceiling. He was already fully clothed in his school uniform.

“Good morning,” he said.

“’Morning,” replied John, his voice thick with sleep.

“Mike says I have to go to breakfast with you. It’s at seven forty-five. Don’t be late.”

“’Kay,” mumbled John, and heaved his body out of the warm cocoon of bed.

***

He did as Mike had instructed the day before and had a shower before the majority of the other boys got up, and in doing so, discovered that Doyle was at its most agreeable when no-one was awake. It was dark in most parts of the old house, and tranquil, and there was something about being awake when most of other people were dead to the world, still dreaming for a few precious more minutes. Until the rising bell rang out as John made his way back to room twenty-one with wet hair, ear-splitting in the peace.

Sherlock was sitting at his desk, doing what seemed to be a titration of sorts, with equipment that was surely stolen from somewhere. John got out his uniform and quickly got dressed while his roommate’s back was turned. He studied himself in the mirror. He felt very strange in these new clothes. He could see the same old face, same old hair, same old eyes, but everything else was different. The uniform was uncomfortable. It clung to him in all the wrong places and itched. It consisted of black trousers, a sky blue shirt and a black blazer. The boys also had to wear a house-specific tie. Doyle’s was a deep red that bordered on maroon, with four blue stripes under the knot and a small gold emblem of a snake curling up a sword in front of an open book – the school crest – in the pointed tip.

“Coming?” asked Sherlock, getting up from his desk.

“’Course, yep,” said John, and pulled on his blazer. The two made their way over to the dining hall.

During the walk, John learned that this morning, like every other morning except weekends, they had assembly in the main hall and that every Monday and Friday, they had games in the afternoons. On Tuesday afternoons, the sixth form did an activity of their choosing, and on Saturdays, they had lessons in the mornings, and then sports fixtures or training in the afternoon. Sundays were a day of rest, thank god, but it being a very traditional, very old, school, they had to go to church in the village mid-morning.

John also learned that Sherlock barely ever watched the telly, but preferred the violin, chess, or reading in his spare time, or, of course, performing strange, and, John was convinced, bordering on illegal, experiments.

For being so famously antisocial, Sherlock seemed quite happy to answer John's questions, John thought. 

They sat together at breakfast. John was surprsingly hungry, but Sherlock just pushed his cereal about in its bowl half-heartedly until it became soggy, only eating a few mouthfuls. John didn’t say anything, but noted it.

At eight thirty, the whole house joined the rest of the school in the main hall. It was a big, draughty building, with a stage at one end. Assembly was deathly boring. The head master spoke in a droning voice that couldn’t have been more lacking in interest if he tried and John was glad to see the back of the entire affair. Leaving the hall, John quickly caught up with his roommate.

“What lesson do you have?”

“Biology.”

“Oh, that’s good, I won’t get lost, then. I’ve got it too.”

They made their way over to the science block in silence, John striving in vain to keep up with Sherlock’s impossibly long, purposeful stride. The building which housed the labs was, unsurprisingly, an extensive, red brick, old thing, with long, pearly columns adorning the façade. High up, close to the roof, were three engravings; one of early distillation equipment, one showing a set of old scales, and the other depicting an antique microscope. A wave of students, young and old, streamed through the heavy-looking double doors between the central two columns, and John and Sherlock followed.

Once enveloped by the half-gloom and old-wood smell of the building, John checked his timetable for the umpteenth time. The slip of paper was already falling apart at the creases where John had folded it and unfolded it so many times, checking and rechecking his lessons. According to it, John’s first lesson at St. Bart’s was in lab eleven. He turned to Sherlock to ask him where it was, but the boy’s unnecessarily tall form was nowhere to be seen. Great, thought John. He couldn’t just stand there and be buffeted about by the constant flow of kids in the corridor for long, so he let the current sweep him away and hoped it was the right direction.

Finally, John found his classroom. He joined the line of chattering pupils outside the classroom. He gave a smile to the girl next to him, who smiled back and, after a moment, asked a little shyly,

“You’re the new guy, aren’t you?” John confirmed it, while wondering how fast news spread in the school. “I’m Molly! Hi,” the girl’s smile grew.

“John.”

Molly opened her mouth to continue their conversation, but the door to the classroom opened and they dutifully filed in.

There was a seating plan projected onto the whiteboard, so John assumed his position. He had a decent seat, middle row, third from the right, with a clear view of the board and the corridor outside. John’s lab partner sitting next to him had long, mousey brown hair tied in an intricate plait. On sitting, John realised she was very pretty indeed, and even prettier when she smiled at him in greeting.

“Hey,” she said. The seating plan told John that her name was Sarah.

“Hi,” John could see the brown-ginger hair of Molly directly in front of him, and, to John’s surprise, Mike, at the front on the left. John hadn’t spotted him before. Their teacher was standing at the front of the old lab, rubbing his hands together.

“Welcome, one and all!” The man’s voice was bursting with glee. “I am Dr Hope, and you are all doctor hopefuls!” John chuckled. Not many others did.

The lesson proceeded with the routine distribution of text books, exercise books, notebooks, the dull repetition of lab rules, and the lists of topics they would cover the coming year. About half way through, when the class was quiet, there came muffled shouting from across the hallway outside. The door of their classroom was open, and the class lifted their heads in surprise as their ears were assaulted with a muffled but irate, “Out!”, a door opening, and footsteps on the polished wood floor.

Surprisingly, but actually not very surprisingly at all, Sherlock Holmes strolled languidly across the doorway, making his way down the corridor as if he had no intention of ever returning whence he came. Sherlock’s eyes were focused and dark, and John’s disbelieving ones followed his roommate until he was out of sight.

Molly turned around to John.

“That’s got to be a school record or something - just-” she checked her watch- “Twenty five minutes! Twenty five minutes into a new year and Sherlock’s already peeved off his teacher. Oh! You’re in his house, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. His roommate, actually,”

“Ooh, he’ll be in an awful mood when you get back to house at break… mind you, he looks magnificent when he’s angry, all moody and-” Molly stopped, mortified. “Did I just say that out loud?” John nodded, biting back a laugh. “Oh, God…” Molly turned around again, red flushing her cheeks.

Poor girl, thought John. She’s smitten. He turned back to his book with a chuckle.

***

Molly was right. When John got back to room twenty one after his first two lessons, Sherlock was in a colossal sulk. His moodiness was radiating from the room. The lanky creature was pacing, up and down, up and down, and John had to dodge around him to get to his side of the room.

“I hear you set a new record for yourself by pissing off your teacher in just twenty five minutes this morning,” prompted John with a smirk.

“It was Jones. It was difficult to resist.” muttered Sherlock. “He is spectacularly dull.”

“What did you do?”

Sherlock ceased pacing and turned to face his roommate with a huff.

“He was being insolent and rude to me, as he always is, so I simply inquired as to whether it was entirely appropriate for him to be drinking so much malt whiskey before the first lesson of a new year, and whether his developing pornography addiction had helped him with his marital problems, and he evicted me from his class. What’s so funny?”

John had been trying to conceal his laughter, but failed. “Nothing’s funny, it’s just brilliant - and fucking awful - that if you don’t like someone, you expose their secrets in public… Remind me not to get on the wrong side of you.”

Sherlock went back to pacing again and continued his lament. “So now, I suspect, I will have been demoted and will have to take biology with our own year from now on. In fact, Lestrade will be coming to inform me of just that shortly. Ah - here he comes…”

Lestrade opened the door just as Sherlock finished his sentence. “Holmes, my study, please. Now.”

Sherlock turned and swept out of the room with all the grace of a brewing  thunderstorm, Lestrade following behind, looking exhausted already.

John was sketching placidly when, a few minutes later, the door to the room swung open as if some mighty tornado had been the one responsible. Sherlock, the next best thing, marched in, clambered up onto his bed, fell back onto his duvet, and descended into full sulk mode.

“Not good?” ventured John.

“My earlier hypothesis was correct. Jones emailed Lestrade, claiming to ‘have had enough of my rudeness’, and has banished me to Dr Hope’s class.”

“Banished? It’s not that bad…” the look on Sherlock’s face said otherwise. “Hey, that's my class, you'll be with me - that's some light in the darkness, right?”

“John, I have already completed AS biology, last year, and I was finding the Upper Sixth work insufferably easy and I’d only been there half an hour. I will die of boredom, my brain will rot from lack of use…”

“Oh, come on, stop being such a drama queen!”

Sherlock groaned and turned to the wall.

John rolled his eyes and continued with his sketch. He was starting to find Sherlock more amusing than scary, and smiled to himself.

***

After two more lessons, it was lunch. Sherlock was nowhere to be seen, so John went and sat with Mike and his friends. They chatted about this and that, and John soon left them in search of his roommate.

When John returned to the room, Sherlock was busy scribbling something in a notebook.

“Didn't you go to lunch?”

“Lunch is irrelevant.” came the reply.

“You need to eat, Sherlock.”

Sherlock made a non-committal noise and continued writing feverishly. “You do, else you’ll, I don’t know, waste away!”

“I will waste away if I have to endure a reprise of AS Level biology,” muttered Sherlock.

John took a deep breath and changed the subject. “You said yesterday that you’re not doing rugby this term,”

“Yes.”

“I thought it was compulsory?”

“It is.”

Sherlock took John’s confused silence as a response and clarified. “I helped out the head of sport a couple of years ago. I covered up something that he definitely did not want becoming common knowledge; thereby I am excused indefinitely from compulsory games.  Sometimes I swim, however. But late at night, when there is no chance of running into other... humans.”

“I see.” Shaking his head in amusement, John settled down to the torture that was chemistry homework.

***

John had been staring into space. He was sitting atop his bed with unbalanced chemical equations balanced on his knee. Sherlock threw down his (stolen) safety goggles, making John jump.

“It’s no good!” exclaimed Sherlock, getting up and resuming his pacing once again. John knew better than to ask what, exactly, was ‘no good’, but instead realised what he had been staring unseeingly at. Hanging on the outer bedpost of Sherlock’s bunk was a human skull, wearing a pair of black and red Beats headphones. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? He didn’t know whether to laugh or be very deeply disturbed.

“Sherlock, what the fuck is this?” he jumped down to get a closer look at the skull. He turned to his roommate, whose only answer was a cocked eyebrow. “A human skull? Seriously?”

“Well observed, John,” drawled Sherlock. “A friend of mine – well, I say friend…” he grinned dangerously before returning to his desk and staring intently at whatever was in all those (stolen) beakers and conical flasks.

John mentally shook himself and began to get ready for rugby.

Chapter Text

Comfortably exhausted after his second day of lessons, John was ambling back to house with Mike, since they had had maths together, when he remembered the jangling change in his trouser pocket.

“The vending machines are at the sports hall, right?”

“Yep – are you going?”

“Yeah, I could use something sugary.”

“I’ll bet… I would come, but I’m meeting up with Emily,” Mike smiled sheepishly.

“Already making moves? Mike, you sly dog,”

Mike laughed. “I will. Bye, mate.”

Mike and John parted and John made his way in what he hoped was the direction of the sports hall. I should really carry a map, John thought to himself; the school was huge and sprawled lazily across the rolling countryside.

Some time later, John admitted defeat. He was lost. Again.

“Lost?” came a velvet voice from behind him. John wheeled around and was presented with the sight of a girl of indeterminable age, with dark brown, glossy hair standing behind him. She was smiling at him invitingly.

“Hi,” John flashed his most winning grin. “Yeah, do you know where the sports hall is?”

“Of course. I was just headed there myself. I’ll show you, come on.” She walked off, her surely-not-regulation heels clacking on the concrete. As they walked, the girl pulled out her phone, a Blackberry, and her long-nailed fingers darted with expertise on the keyboard, typing faster than John had previously thought was possible. After a few moments of silence, John said,

“So, what’s your name?”

“Anthea.” She went back to typing.

“I’m John,” he said. Since you didn’t ask.

“Yeah, I know. The new guy.” Anthea smiled as if she had a secret.

They continued in silence, except for the tapping of nails on plastic. She stopped beside a door, and noticed John’s querying look.

“It’s a short cut,” she explained. They went inside, and John instantly regretted it. It was dark, unforgivingly so; there were no windows and he had no clue where his guide had gone.

“Anthea?” he called. “Shit. Where’s the light switch…” he fumbled about on the wall. His hands found a switch and flicked it on.

Blinking, John found himself in a very old, disused classroom. The paint was peeling from the walls and there was a snow-like blanket of dust on the furniture. What was most surprising, however, was the impeccably dressed man standing in front of the blackboard, leaning on an umbrella.

“Hello, John.”

John stood froze. The man was smiling, but it did not comfort John in the slightest. It made the man look like a reptile. John instantly knew this was not a teacher standing before him.

“I’ve got a phone on me, you know. If you try anything-”

“Oh, don’t be alarmed, John. There’ll be no need for that. I’m not going to kidnap you, although it is well within my power to do so.” The man had a voice like silk, expensive silk, and suits and fountain pens and debit cards and hired assassins. “No, I just want a chat. Take a seat.” He ambled over to John, twirling his umbrella.

“I’d rather stand.”

“You don’t seem very afraid,” the man cocked his head towards him.

“Should I be?” John returned.

The man laughed, unexpectedly, before continuing with a malignant smile. “Ah yes, the defiance of the teenager… by far the kindest term for stupidity, don’t you think?” John gave no reply. The man’s face became serious. “What is your connection to Sherlock Holmes?”

“I barely have one. We’re roommates.”

“Yes, I know. And you have been thus for over forty-eight hours now and have made no efforts to rectify the situation.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Who are you?”

“An interested party.”

“Why are you interested in Sherlock? I’m guessing you’re not friends.”

“You’ve met him; how many friends do you expect he has? No, I am the closest thing to a friend that Sherlock has.”

“And what would that be?”

“An enemy. In his mind. If you were to ask him, he may even say his arch enemy.”

John’s phone vibrated in his blazer pocket. Not taking his eyes off the man in front of him, he took out his phone. The text was from an unknown number.

07700 900563: Our room. Come at once, if convenient. SH

Of course the bastard would have his number. Of course.

“Are you busy?” said the man.

“Not at all,” said John, leaving the text unanswered.

“Are you likely to remain Sherlock Holmes’ roommate?” There was something about the drop in pitch in the man’s voice that made John uneasy.

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” he said, measuredly.

“I would say otherwise.” Said the man with finality. “If you decide to… persevere with current arrangements, I would be happy to pay you a meaningful sum of money on a regular basis to ease your way.”

“In exchange for what?”

“Information. Nothing you’d feel uncomfortable with releasing, nothing indiscreet. Just tell me what he’s up to,”

“Why?”

“I worry about him. Constantly.” There was a pause. “But, I would, for various reasons, prefer if our little meeting would go unmentioned – we have what one might call a, shall we say, tricky relationship.”

John’s phone vibrated again.

07700 900563:If inconvenient, come anyway.

“No.”

The man laughed uncomfortably. “But I haven’t mentioned a figure -”

“Don’t bother.”

“You’re very loyal, very quickly, Mr Watson.” There was something John didn’t like about his undertones. Something icy.

“No, I’m not, I’m really not, I’m just not interested.” The man’s face fell. He looked as if there was a foul taste in his mouth. He reached into a drawer in one of the desks and pulled out a manila file, opened it, and scanned the pages within.

“Trust issues, it says here.”

John swallowed, his already unhealthily-high pulse rate soaring even higher, palms starting to prickle uncomfortably.

“What’s that?”

“Could it be that you have put your trust in Sherlock Holmes, of all people?” The man mused, ignoring John’s question.

“Who says I trust him? And where did you get that?” The stranger, again, ignored John. “Are we done?”

“You tell me.” 

John held the stranger’s gaze, before turning around and calmly making his way out of the classroom.

Once outside, John slumped against the wall, and let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding in. Who the hell was that man? And the girl, Anthea? She had been wearing the school uniform but she couldn’t have been a student. He should report this to a teacher. But something told John that if he did, it would have no effect whatsoever on the man. He gave the impression of being above any kinds of law, and judging by his appearance, could easily bribe his way out of prison.

He rubbed at his shoulder.

Another text.

07700 900563:Could be dangerous.

John straightened up, squared his shoulders, and walked back to house, ignoring the unsteadiness in his legs.

***

John found Sherlock standing with his back to the door, gazing out of the window, when he returned to their room.

“Hi,” John worked off his shoes.

“Hello, John. How were lessons?”

“Good, thanks. Although, I nearly got fucking kidnapped by a friend of yours on the way back.”

“A friend?” Sherlock sounded confused.

“An enemy, actually, according to him.”

“Oh, right. Which one?”

“Your arch enemy, apparently. What kind of sixteen year old has arch enemies, Sherlock?” John could barely contain the mixture of anger and fear creeping into his voice.

“Did he offer you money to spy on me?”

“Yes.”

“Did you take it?”

John was taken aback. “Well - no.”

“That was stupid. You could have sent some to your family, or bought more tuck.”

John was unnerved by how calm Sherlock was. “Who is he?”

“The most dangerous man you’ve ever met and not important right now.”

“I should report him to the police. I don’t think grown men are just allowed to wander into a school like that,”

“Illogical.”

“What?”

“There would be absolutely no point whatsoever, John. It would not accomplish a thing. God knows I’ve tried."

John was baffled by that, but knew that he wasn't going to get a concrete answer any time soon. He reasoned with himself that if Sherlock didn't seem overly worried, he needn't be either. “So why did you need me?”

“Hmm?”

“Your texts?”

“Oh, yeah, could you -”

“God, Sherlock, what happened to you?”

The boy had finally turned around. His shirt was muddy and ripped across the front; he had a bruise forming on his cheek and a split lip. He looked as if he had been in some sort of pub brawl; he had cuts everywhere, and one particularly worrying one horribly close to his left eye.

“Oh, nothing, can you -”

“It certainly doesn’t look like nothing, you cock, your face is covered in blood!”

“Yes, I know,” Sherlock wiped some of the blood off with the back of his hand.

“Go to the s-”

“I am not going to the san. It’s not that bad.”

“Shut up, you bastard, those cuts need cleaning.”

“John, all the swearing is not necessary,”

“I will bloody swear all I fucking want, you piece of shit, now sit your arse down and let me have a goddamn look at you!”

“John, it’s fine, there are much more important things I have to - ”

“Ha. No. Sit.”

Sherlock realised John wasn’t going to give in, so he shot him a scowl and sat on the floor, folding his gangly legs in on themselves like an over-sized praying mantis might. John knelt by him and swept his eyes over his roommate’s injuries. He lifted the flap of shirt and peered at the skin beneath, making a face. He noticed that Sherlock’s hair was matted with blood, and upon closer inspection, found that he had cut his head as well.

He sat back on his heels.

“You’ve got a fairly superficial bruise on your cheek, several minor scratches, grazes and scrapes, a bleeding head - nothing too serious - a pretty deep cut by your left eye that you’re probably going to need stitches for, and I am a bit worried about the colour of where you evidently got kicked in the stomach. Jesus, Sherlock. Go to the san.”

“I will not. It won’t help. Besides, it sounds as if you’re more than competent to take care of my injuries, Dr Watson.” John couldn’t help smiling at that.

He sighed. “As nice as that title sounds, you might need proper stitches, I can’t do those. And you need to be looked over by a professional. Why don’t you want to go to the san?”

“I don’t... like it there.”

“Why? They just want to help you,”

“Let me rephrase that; they don’t like me there.”

“What?”

“It’s irrelevant, John, I’m fine - ” Sherlock attempted to get up, but John grabbed him by the arm and pulled him down again. Sherlock hissed involuntarily at the contact. John shoved up Sherlock’s sleeve to reveal the site of what must have been a particularly nasty variation of a Chinese burn, the skin an angry red. John exhaled unhappily.

“What happened to you?”

His question was met with a stony silence.

“Tell you what. If you tell me what happened, I won’t make you go to the san. Yeah?”

“Nice try, John,” was the scathing answer.

“Fine,” John got up. “I’ll go and find a first aid kit, stay here.”

“You’re going to help me anyway? Even though I didn’t comply with your deal?” asked Sherlock, incredulously.

“Yeah…? I’m not a completely heartless bastard, you know,”

“Oh. I see.” Sherlock’s confusion at what John thought was a perfectly normal response to seeing your roommate in pain was both funny and saddening at the same time. John pushed the thought from his mind and focused on his first aid kit hunt.

When he returned, John found Sherlock in the same spot he’d left him, thankfully. He was half expecting him to have got bored and run off during the two-minute interlude of John’s absence.

John sat opposite Sherlock and opened up the garish green box. It was full to the brim with medical bounty; antiseptic, bandages, plasters, antihistamines, butterfly stitches… John got to work.

“Hold still, this might sting a bit, it’s got alcohol in it.”

“I’m not five, John,” said Sherlock, trying to disguise a sharp inhale as the cleansing wipe came into contact with one of the cuts on his face.

John was trying his hardest to be gentle. He found the process distracting and calming, pouring his energy into healing broken flesh. His patient didn’t squirm too much, unlike Harry, when she was little and had got herself into a scuffle with some other kid. That was when John had first realised he wanted to be a doctor, six years ago, wiping down his little sister’s bloody knees, while his parents were elsewhere.

Sherlock watched John’s eyes. They were sombre and focused as the brain behind them slid into mind set of a healer. Yes, thought Sherlock. John will make a very good doctor one day; strong moral principles, a prominent desire to help, to care for others, quick fingers with a light touch, steady hands, trustworthy.

“It was Anderson.” Said Sherlock reluctantly.

“Hmm?” John inquired, surgical tape between his teeth.

“Anderson. He’s in Dickens house. I was collecting some limestone from the statue outside Pullman, for an experiment. I was balancing rather precariously on the base of the statue, when someone nudged my foot and I fell to the ground. Anderson and I have never been the best of friends, but he must have missed me over the summer because he and his little posse seemed to take more enjoyment than usual in throwing their pathetic punches and petty insults.”

“And it was completely unprovoked?” John kept working while Sherlock related his story.

“Yes.” John gave him a look. Sherlock sighed. “I may have insinuated that he is cheating on his girlfriend with a girl named Sally Donovan, which made him particularly aggressive for some reason - ow!”

“Sorry,” John had pressed a little too hard on the cut closest to Sherlock’s eye. He stuck the last butterfly stitch into place. “That’s your face done. Now…”

John lifted the flap of shirt and inspected the bruising on Sherlock’s stomach. He pressed and prodded, noting when Sherlock reacted and when he didn’t.

“I think… I think… you’re fine there. Just, if something doesn’t feel right, just suck it up and go to the san – don’t give me that look – because we don’t want you having internal bruising. Turn around so I can do the cuts on your head.”

Sherlock did as he was instructed. John parted the thick tangles of Sherlock’s hair to reveal a bloody patch where some of the skin had been taken clean off, coating the brown waves with a sticky crimson gloss.

“Did you hit your head on the statue as you fell?”

“Mmm.” Sherlock confirmed. John kept one hand on his roommate’s head to keep it steady as he reached for the cleaning wipes.

“How many of them were there?” John got started on gently wiping away the blood.

“Five,” Sherlock murmured.

“Why don’t they like you?”

There was a long pause before Sherlock spoke. “I’m cleverer than them. I'm not afraid of them. I'm not like them."

I’m different to them.

“Are you alright John?” John realised he had tightened his grip on Sherlock’s hair and uncurled his fist.

“Oh - sorry.”

“Don’t bother trying to confront Anderson,” said Sherlock, reading John’s mind before John had even realised the thought was there. “He’s not worth your time.”

“He sounds like a dick.”

“That’s why he’s in Dickens,” said Sherlock, stressing the first syllable, surprising John into laughter.

“Oh, wow, that was truly pathetic. Was that… humour? From the great and mighty Sherlock Holmes?”

“I’m not a completely heartless bastard, you know.”

John could hear the smile in his voice.

Chapter Text

John’s eyes snapped open. He was upright before he knew what he was doing and gasping like a new-born. He clamped a hand over his mouth to keep the sobs inside, gulping them down. He could do nothing to stop the tears spilling from his eyes and the shaking that racked his body.

The darkness was claustrophobic, the air felt too thin. There was a boa constrictor around his chest and a knife in his shoulder. He was choking.

“Go back to sleep, John.” Sherlock’s voice cut through the dark. He was standing by the window, a towel in his hands. “It was only a dream. Go back to sleep, now, John. It’s alright.”

John fell back on his pillow and felt the arms of sleep embracing him like a mother might, his lullaby his own breathing.

***

“Do you still have the nightmares?”

John was sitting in his therapist’s office. It was the first official Sunday of term.

“Yes.”

“Every night?” She looked concerned.

“Pretty much.”

“And what does your roommate think of them?”

“I don’t know. We don’t discuss them.”

“But he knows you have them?”

“Yes, he’s always awake when I wake up. I don’t think he ever sleeps. Maybe he’s a vampire.”

The joke was forced…

“Don’t try to change the subject, John,”

 …but she was smiling.

“Right, sorry,”

“What does he do when you wake up? You said a few months ago that you are often screaming, or shouting…”

“Yes, well, it changes. But, uh, he always says the same thing to me, I think. Sometimes I don’t even remember waking up, in the morning, that is. But I know I do.”

“What does he say?”

“He tells me to go back to sleep, that it was only a dream, you know, etcetera, etcetera. We never discuss it in the morning.”

“Does it help?”

“I suppose so. It’s nice to have some… regularity.”

“I see. Have you kept up with the drawings?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not going to ask you to show them to me unless you want to, they’re private. But what kinds of things have you been drawing?”

“Lots of different things,”

“Like what?”

“It’s, erm, kind of hard to explain.”

Still struggling with trust, she wrote on her pad. Reading upside down was a skill John had found it very useful to acquire while in therapy.

“And it’s your birthday next week, isn’t it?” She looked up, smiling.

“Yeah,”

“Are you doing anything special?”

“Er, no. I hadn’t planned anything.”

“And why not?”

John shrugged. She wasn’t convinced. He elaborated. “Well, I’m away at school, so I can’t see my old friends, and I don’t know anyone well enough here - there, I mean - yet to, you know, celebrate my birthday with them.”

She still wasn’t convinced, but let it slide. “Would you say you’ve made friends?”

“Yeah. Yeah, definitely.”

“Do you have a best friend, or a group of friends?”

“It’s early days.”

“I know,”

“But there’s my roommate, and Mike, and Ollie’s pretty nice, and Molly, and Sarah, and all the guys in my house are pretty friendly, really.”

“Do you miss your old school? Do you get homesick?”

“Of course I miss some parts of it, yeah. But not as much as I thought I would. It’s not as… scary as I’d imagined.”

“What did you imagine?” she seemed amused.

“Oh, I don’t know. Really… old, cold buildings with teachers who were all ancient and, like, beat you - the kind of stuff you see in period dramas on telly.”

“What is it like, then? What are the people like?”

“The teachers… vary. Like in all schools, I guess. And so do the pupils,”

“But you haven’t encountered any… unpleasantness, any bullies?”

“Not personally, no.”

“Personally?”

“I’ve heard of some... run-ins, of course,”

“Of course. And you still want to be a doctor?”

“More than ever.”

“What about extra-curricular things, have you joined any clubs?”

“Er, no clubs, as such, yet. I am in the rugby team though, the first team, actually. Also, we have to do an activity on Tuesday afternoons so I joined the army section of the Combined Cadet Force.”

“And what’s that like?”

“It’s fun. You have to dress up in the uniform and everything, and we get to learn how to use guns and march places.”

“Will you be able to do the rifle training? With your shoulder, that might not be the best idea.”

“Oh, no, it’s fine; I asked and the teacher said I would be bracing the gun against my other shoulder anyway, seeing as I’m right-handed.” There was a pause in which she took some notes down, but John couldn’t quite make out what they said. Something about duty. “My shoulder’s a lot better now, anyway, well enough to play rugby with. It only aches when it rains, and as long as I’m careful, it barely ever hurts anymore.”

“Good, good,” she said absently, still scribbling. “Do you still miss your father?”

A pause. “Yes.”

“The anniversary is soon isn’t it?”

“Next week.”

“And how are you feeling about that?”

“Fine.” She raised her eyebrows. “No. Not fine. I feel… guilty - for being away, for leaving Harry, I should be at home, I should…” he trailed off into a sigh.

“You should do the thing you are most passionate about. Always. And if that thing means seizing the opportunity to pursue your dream, you do it. Even if it means leaving behind something that is important for a short time, you must learn to put yourself first.”

“But - ”

“I know you want to help your mother and sister, and be with your family, but honestly John, you can’t please everyone. You can't replace your father. You don't need to fill his shoes. You can just be sixteen. You can let yourself move on.”

“I can’t just… do that...”

“I know. It will take some time. But I believe that being away from there, with all those memories, will help you so much. Honestly, John.” John looked down at his hands twisted in his lap. “By all means, honour your father’s memory. Remember him. But celebrate his life. Don’t dwell on his death. And try to think what he’d want you to do. He wouldn’t want you stuck in the past. He’d want you to enjoy your life, be brave, put yourself out there.”

“Sometimes… I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like everyone can see straight through me. And they’re whispering about what I did -”

“John, you didn’t do anything.” They’d been over that point many times, and John had grown very tired very quickly of it, and so, this time, ignored her and carried on.

“- And how I’ve, I don’t know, neglected my family. And they are all judging me on my past.”

“We've spoken about this.” She reminded him. "When irrational fears come up, we can ground ourselves and remember that's all they are. Irrational."

“Yeah. I know, it’s just, that’s how I feel sometimes.”

“That’s why it’s so good to be in a new place. Nobody knows you there, John. You don’t have to tell them anything you don’t want them to know. Anything you want to keep private, it can stay that way. If you don’t mind me asking, how many people do know?”

“About what? Because there are a lot of things…”

“About your father.”

“Just one. My roommate. But he doesn’t know the circumstances.”

Unless John was mistaken, she underlined the note about trust issues.

***

John had been given permission to leave school for the day, to take the train down to London in the morning to see his therapist, then spend some time at home, and come back in the evening.

The therapist was only a short tube ride from John’s home, and he relished being back in the subterranean tunnels. He loved it. He would much rather take the tube over a car any day; the carriage rattling along, screeching and jarring as it went, was the sound of home, and it was easy to lose himself in the crowds.

Those therapist sessions were always the same. The same supposedly innocent questions, the same unfailingly accurate inferences from his answers. Trust issues. Duty. Guilt. Introversion. Afraid. Having trouble moving on. Psychosomatic. PTSD. All jabs with sharp needles at his life, each one hitting the veins anew each time.

He didn’t see the point of her questions. She could see exactly what he was thinking; he didn’t need to expose himself further by confirming her theories. And then, out of nowhere, all these words would come rushing out of his mouth, saying things he wasn’t even sure were true until he realised what he had said and, yes, all of it was there, inside his head.

Sometimes it angered him, that he was careless enough to let it all slip out, but if he didn’t talk to her, she’d just put it down to unwillingness to acknowledge what had happened, and what was still happening, and that would just prolong the whole tortuous experience. And it had been going on way too long anyway.

She was a nice woman, really. She meant well. And she was extremely smart. John knew that. But it also felt like she was an intruder, sometimes; and there were some things he was reluctant to share. Because if he said them aloud, it would make them real. If they were just thoughts, inside his head where no one could see, John had control over them, to a certain extent. He knew it was irrational, that that reluctance to communicate was counterproductive to a person recovering from trauma; he needed to get better, and he knew this was the only way.

John tried to pull himself out of his head. Come on, John. Don’t fall into that pit again. Distract yourself.

He looked around the carriage at the other passengers. He decided to play a game with himself; to occupy his mind by trying his hand at Sherlock’s uncanny skill of deducing a person’s life story from one glance, something he’d noticed the odd boy doing time and time again during the last week. John picked his target.

Sitting opposite him was a man, mid-forties maybe, reading a book. He had a pair of glasses on, and was wearing a brown coat over jeans, a jumper and trainers. Nothing out of the ordinary, he was just a bloke on the tube, travelling from one place to another. How did Sherlock do this? It was difficult.

Come on, John. Really look.

Well, the man bit his nails, John saw. Maybe it was a nervous habit. And the book had been taken out of a library recently; it had the name stamped on the side. So… a bibliophile, then. Okay. What about the shoes? The trainers were spotless on the top part, but the soles were grey and a bit worn, but had no traces of mud. So he lived in the city and didn’t frequent parks. But they looked too new, too stiff, to suggest that he wore them as actual training shoes, and he didn’t look like the athletic type. So maybe his job involved a lot of walking around London, or maybe he’d had the shoes for a while.

How about the clothes? There was a whitish stain on the jumper, right in the middle. Toothpaste seemed the most likely explanation – maybe he’d rushed his exit from home this morning. When the man turned his head, John could see smudges all over the glasses as they caught the light. The ends of the man’s coat sleeves were discoloured from years of stains.

The toothpaste and smudged glasses and coat sleeves said that the man was pretty careless about his appearance, and he had a nervous habit of biting his nails and… and… and that was all John could get.

John was quite pleased with himself. Sure, he wasn’t going to challenge the notorious Holmes any time soon, but he still felt clever.

The man looked up, having noticed John staring at him. John quickly looked away. Maybe he’d leave the deductions there for today.

***

His home looked like a faded photograph; the off-white walls, the once-bright red door, the greying weeds in tangles in the tiny front garden. John had only been away a week, but the contrast between the extravagance of Bart’s and the simplicity of his home was great and gaping and John couldn’t ignore it.

As he walked up the path to the front door, there was a twitch at the curtains of the windows of the lounge. His fingertips had just grazed the metal of the door handle before the door was flung open from inside, and a wild form launched itself upon him in a fierce embrace that took John more than a little by surprise. Before John could regain his balance and hug the quivering Harry in return, she quickly pushed herself off him with a small cough. Her eyes betrayed her, though.

“John.” He’d missed that smile.

“It’s only been a week, Harry,” he grinned as they went inside.

The house smelt of old furniture and laundry. Did it always used to smell like this? It must have done, but he must only be noticing it now because he’d been away from it.

“Where’s mum?”

“Lounge.”

John pushed open the door to the room to find his mum asleep in an armchair. The room was dim, the only illumination coming from the television, its cold, flickering light casting harsh shadows and deep lines onto his mother’s face. She looked drawn and tired - no, utterly exhausted. There was an empty wine glass held loosely in her hand, limp over the arm of the chair. The canned laughter of an American sitcom was grating against the quiet of the house. John found the remote and put it on mute. He looked at his mum, watched her chest almost imperceptibly rising and falling, watched the carotid artery pulse with life in her neck, again, again, again.

Harry was standing in the doorway, head cocked to one side. She was wearing eyeliner. Quite a bit of it. She was watching their mum, too. John wondered how many nights Harry had spent watching over her mother since John hadn’t been there. It had only been a week, just a meagre seven days, almost to the hour, since John had walked out of that door and into another world. But a lot can happen in seven days.

Their mum’s eyes flickered open. John watched as she focused, as her eyes travelled up to meet his. Her mouth cracked, slowly splitting to reveal a smile he knew so well – there was so much Harry in that smile. Or was there so much mum in Harry’s smile? John didn’t know if there was a difference anymore.

“John -” she cut off with a cough. “Johnny, sweetie, what’re you doing here?”

“I had therapy today, mum, remember? I got permission to come see you for a while.”

“Oh yes, I remember now,” John knew she was lying. She got up from her chair as if she hadn’t done so in a very long time. “Tea?”

“I’ll get it,” said Harry, with a look at John.

“I’ll help,” he said hurriedly and followed Harry into the tiny kitchen.

The kitchen used to be John’s favourite room in the house. When he was little, he used to sit on the table in the centre and watch his dad cook. When he was in pre-school, he used to think his dad was a wizard, by the way he stirred his potions and the steam would come billowing out of the pots. When he was in primary school, he used to think his dad was an evil scientist, doing experiments in his lab, creating new chemicals and discovering new elements. When he was in secondary school, he used to think it would have been cooler if his dad swore like Gordon Ramsay. Now, he thought it would have been cooler if his dad was there at all.

When he was little, the kitchen always smelled of warmth to John. Now it was cold.

Harry busied herself finding tea bags. John put the kettle on.

“She still hasn’t got a job,” Harry said, her voice a little too light.

“Has she been looking?”

“I think so.” Harry came over to him and looked at him.

“I’ve missed you, Harry,” John folded her into his arms. She was one of the few people he was taller than, and she felt comfortingly solid.

“Stupid boy,” she said, and pushed him away after a moment.

John watched Harry making the tea. She looked so young. She was so young, just thirteen, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She’d hidden her youth under her clothes and her make-up. But those unmistakable freckles of hers still insisted on being noticed. She was growing to look like her mother more and more each day.

“How’s school?” It was a mundane question, but it needed to be asked.

“Pretty much the same as last year. How’s yours?”

“Big. Big and old.”

She handed him a steaming mug with a smile that was too world-weary for such a young face. Together, they walked back into the lounge.

“Thank you, baby,” said John’s mum as he handed her the tea. She wrapped her hands around it. John tried not to think about how easily he could see the thin bones in her fingers.

“We should put some lights on in here,” she said, and began moving around the room, John and Harry following suit.

“I’m sorry for not giving you a better welcome home, Johnny - I must have fallen asleep after lunch. You should have woken me up, Harry.”

John was pretty sure it was said jokingly, but interrupted before Harry could respond nevertheless.

“No, it’s fine, really. It’s not worthy of a welcome or anything, can't stay long.”

All three sank into the sofa. Now that the curtains had been opened and the lights had been turned on, the room seemed a lot more inviting.

“I have to be gone in a couple of hours. I just wanted to come and say hello to you both.”

“Aren’t you a good boy,” his mum smiled fondly. “So, tell all – what’s your new school like, Johnny?”

“Fine,”

“Just ‘fine’? You’re not homesick, are you?”

“No, no – I mean, I miss you, and home, of course, but I’m doing fine. It’s very different, though.”

“What about your house master, is he as nice as he seemed in the brochure?”

“Yeah, he’s great.”

John felt as if they were all posing for a camera, a perfect picture of family life. Polite conversation, caring gestures, respectful jokes - complete ignorance of the countless nights of slamming doors, shouted expletives, smashed plates and blood-shot eyes that they had all been reduced to not so long ago. A glass vase, teetering on the edge of a mantelpiece.

“How’ve things been here?” asked John.

“Oh, same as always. It’s been strange without you, though, Johnny – hasn’t it, Harry?” Harry hummed an agreement into her mug.

“Year Nine has been treating Trouble here just fine, as far as I’ve been able to gather. Lots more homework, though.”

John could feel the inevitable question drawing near.

“So, what’s your roommate like?” The un-asked question hung in the air above their heads, blatantly obvious. Do you wake him up screaming every night?

“He’s… nice enough. He’s a light sleeper, but he doesn’t mind about the… you know.”

“Have they been bad?” Still, even after all this time, still this subject was talked about with an annoying delicacy.

“No worse.”

His mum nodded.

“Any girls yet?” Harry piped up, smirking.

“Harry!” John’s mum chastised half-heartedly. John laughed. Thank God for blunt little sisters.

“Well?” Harry persisted. John watched his mum’s eyes crinkle over the top of her mug and fixed his sister with a smirk of his own.

“Are you asking for me or for you?” His reply was met with a disbelieving glare from Harry.

“John! Cheeky!” reprimanded his mum.

Harry, having been forced prematurely and suddenly into the harsh reality of the world nearly exactly a year ago, had quickly realised that her crippling disinterest with the lengthy analyses of boys at her friends’ sleepovers was more than it had first appeared. It had slipped from her lips during an argument with their mother late one night a few months ago. Needless to say, the argument was abandoned after that, but, surprisingly, picked up again the next day. ‘Your sexuality makes absolutely no difference to the state of your room, young lady!’ had been their mother’s reasoning, and Harry had stormed off to sulk.

“What do you want for your birthday, Harry?” asked John. John’s and Harry’s birthdays were just three weeks apart, which had always been chaotic.

“Stilettos,” she announced mischievously. “Black ones.”

“John Watson, if you buy your sister stilettos for her birthday, I will ban you from this household, do you hear me?” His mum ruled.

“Yes, mum,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to afford them anyway.”

“I think you’re going to love your birthday present this year. Harry and I found it just a few days ago.”

It couldn’t be worse than last year’s, John thought drily, but decided to keep that sentiment to himself.

“And you’ve definitely got Mr Lestrade’s permission to come down on Sunday?”

“Yes, mum. But we have to go to church on Sundays, so I’ll be down after lunch sometime. He let me skip it today but I won't be able to again.”

Her response was a bout of wheezing coughing that made John wince. “Shall we put a film on?” She asked when she had caught her breath.

That was a disastrous idea, and she should have known it.

Five minutes later, Harry had slammed her bedroom door after her begs for The Notebook had been denied in favour of John’s choice of the first Lord of the Rings. The stomping on the stairs had been accompanied by a wail of ‘Why is John so fucking special now just ‘cause he goes to a posh school!’ and a heavy sigh from their mum. They decided to leave her to it and settled down to watch the film together regardless.

Before his mum dozed off and Frodo left the Shire, John reluctantly broached the subject of unemployment.

“I’ve been trying, Johnny, I really have. But with the economy and everything else, everyone’s fighting over the same jobs. You’ll understand when you have to make a living for yourself.”

“I know, mum, but…”

“I know, sweetie. School fees, clothes, food, the mortgage, I know it all needs taking care of. I’m doing my best. And everything's under control, I promise. We're in no danger, don't worry."

John heard his mum’s breaths slow until they settled into an comforting rhythm that was as familiar to him as the sound of his own. He eased the mug from her hands and set it down on the coffee table as softly as he could. He guided her heavy head into a more comfortable position that wouldn’t give her neck ache when she woke up. He left the film playing so as not to disturb her while he fetched a blanket from the cupboard under the stairs. When he returned, he was a little taken aback by how small and vulnerable she looked, so much like Harry, but the world had carved weary fault lines into her skin, folding it like a scrunched-up poem, or mountains seen from above.

Not too long after he had taken care of his mum, the door to the lounge was pushed open a crack. Harry poked her head through the thin sliver of light from the hallway before quietly entering and tiptoeing over to John. She sat a little awkwardly on the edge of the sofa.

“Clara says I have to come apologise to you,” she mumbled, not looking at him, but watching their mother sleep. Clara was on old childhood friend of Harry’s – they were inseparable and it was a given that she was at the Watson household most days of the week after school. John knew that that was as close to an actual apology Harry was going to get, and so reached out and pulled her onto the sofa with him, holding her close. Harry adjusted herself so she could see the telly but was still in John’s arms.

After a few minutes of silence, Harry spoke again.

“I didn’t mean what I said. To you and mum. I’ve missed you.”

“I know,” John returned.

There was a pause.

“And I still miss dad,” Harry whispered, barely audible. She felt John stiffen against her, and worried that she shouldn’t have said that.

“I know,” said John, after a pause, a little rigidly. Then, softer, barely a whisper, “So do I.”

They didn’t speak again until the film ended. John gave his mum a kiss on the cheek, got up and turned the TV off. Harry followed him down the hallway. John opened the front door, the half-darkness spilling into the house.

“Tell mum I love her and that I’ll call tomorrow.” John said, his voice a little hoarse from the couple of hours of disuse. Harry nodded, then gave him a quick hug. “If you don’t cause too much trouble, I’ll see what I can do about those stilettos.” he smirked. Harry grinned.

“You should get some hot chocolate for school.” she suggested. John, at polar opposites to the rest of his family, preferred hot chocolate over tea, and so there was never much of it in the house. “Could go to the Co-Op on the way to the station."

“Mm,” John mused, “I think I will,”

“See you Sunday,” she said. John smiled, and walked off down the path.

Chapter Text

John was almost glad to see the silhouette of Doyle standing proudly against the deep reds of the fading sunset as he trudged up the concrete. In just seven days, he’d forgotten just how exhausting home was. He loved Harry and his mum with all he had, but sometimes he just wanted to stop caring so much.

One, eight, nine, five: those numbers were now engraved into his muscles, his fingers entering the code to the house of their own accord, so different from when he had stood there one week ago, panicking at the thought of not being able to get in.

With an electronic beep, the centuries-old door gave to his shove and John was welcomed back into Doyle with a pauper’s fanfare of distant yelling, dreadful music, and the smell of Lestrade’s dinner cooking. He jogged up the grubby stairs two at a time, one flight, turn, another, turn, open a door, down the Lower Sixth corridor, into room twenty one.

Surprise, surprise: Tall-Dark-And-Moody was nowhere to be seen. John slung his bags onto his bed and kicked off his shoes. That evening, all that really mattered was hot chocolate and that last little bit of homework to finish off before bed.

He peeled off his clothes and nestled into his favourite checked pyjama bottoms and linen-soft, white t-shirt. It was the same sleep attire he’d had for way too long now, but was nevertheless the one that had found its way into his suitcase.

John was pleased to find that Sherlock hadn’t used his milk for dubious purposes in his absence; it was still where John had left it, in the fridge. Unfortunately, it was surrounded by tubs of various dead insects, their legs frozen with a combination of rigor mortis and the cold of their storage. Despite himself, John shivered as he manoeuvred his prize away from the bugs, and tried not to think about how close his hand was to the furry legs of a gargantuan spider.

Mission accomplished, John fetched the tin of hot chocolate powder from the plastic bag from the supermarket, making a mental note to give it a new home under his socks when he was done – he didn’t trust Sherlock enough yet to leave something that precious just lying around. Then again, hot chocolate might have been a bit sweet for his roommate. He seemed to be more of a bitter-coffee-that-is-symbolic-of-my-outlook-on-others’-happiness kind of guy.

John padded into the common room with his mug, milk and chocolate powder in his arms, to find a little gaggle of about half of the Lower Sixth, also pyjama-clad, chatting and bustling about in the kitchenette section of the cosy space.

“John!” Mike greeted him with a smile. “Where’ve you been all day, mate?”

John had deliberately not told the others where he was going before he had left. It was a heavy subject to breach with people you barely knew. He didn’t want to be treated any different to ‘normal’ John; the John that Mike, and Ollie, and the rest, and his mates back home, knew. The John who played rugby and got good grades and loved his family and had had both the modern and ancient versions of the Hippocratic Oath memorised since the age of ten.

Because it would be a lie to say that there was no stigma that came with being in his position – his mum had tried, and failed, to convince him otherwise, in the early days. Going to therapy meant you were weak, unstable, weird, needy and delicate. To teenagers, anyway. He didn’t want to be tiptoed around like some ill child, he didn’t want to be fussed over, and he didn’t want pity. And he knew from experience that that was what he would be burdened with if it was common knowledge.

Of course, he was going to have to learn to trust these boys with time – common sense told him that he couldn't leave school every weekend to go to therapy and lie about it every single time. Despite his conviction to not get too close to these boys, he knew he had to tell them. Perhaps not wanting to get close to them would work in his favour anyway - if they reacted badly, he would have lost nothing. So, he took a breath, and took the leap.

“Therapist.” He felt the room fall silent around him, like he was standing in the eye of a swelling storm.

This happened so often it was beginning to become funny. No-one ever knew how to react to this fact. No-one understood that he didn’t want the awkward ‘Oh’s, or the usually well-meant but still insensitive ‘For what?’s or the ridiculous ‘You’re kidding, right?’s or the cripplingly swift changes of subject. No-one ever thought that maybe all that was needed was a simple ‘Okay’ that would come after him saying he’d just been to the post office. No-one seemed to understand that going to a therapist was just a thing that John did, just like some people had to go to the orthodontists, or others the opticians, or others physiotherapy.

No-one apart from Sherlock, that is, but John wasn’t exactly over the moon about his roommate’s method, either.

Sure, the reason that he went in the first place set him apart from most of his friends, but the whole point of going to a therapist was to sort that out – it didn’t require everyone around him to suddenly transform into amateur therapists themselves; that was unnecessary and patronising. What he needed was everyone to treat him just the same as they would if he didn’t go to therapy. That in itself would help a whole lot more, being treated as normal; because it would make him feel normal, and not intensify the already turbulent environment of his mind.

John could feel his eyes being avoided. Something needed to be said.

“And the Co-Op.”

Stamford’s face cracked into a smile and he laughed, which gave the others the cue that they could do the same. John breathed an internal sigh of relief.

‘Oh, hot chocolate,’ gasped a Russian boy – Vlad? Vlad – having spotted the purple box in John’s hand.

“John…” sang Mike. “You know how I’m your best friend in the whole world…”

John pretended to be weighing up the situation very carefully and Mike and the others clasped their hands in a begging gesture at him. John grinned.

“Fine…” He conceded, and a great cheer went up, attracting the attention of the year nines who had been playing pool in the corner.

The other lower sixth fended off the swarming thirteen-year-olds as John set to making the drinks. 

Five mugs of the stuff later, the lower sixth meandered upstairs, trying with all their might not to spill anything on the carpet. John felt like he was eight again, sleeping over at his mate’s house, trying to laugh silently so as not to wake the grown-ups and struggling to make it to midnight.

Their efforts were in vain, however, as they watched over the banister of the stairs as Lestrade came out of his house and marched into the common room. They listened as the year nines got shouted at for not being in bed, and Mike’s guffaws were infectious. Seconds later, the younger boys scuttled out of the common room with their tails between their legs. They ran up the stairs, urgently mouthing, “Go, go!” as Lestrade strode out after them.

The year nines and lower sixth fell over each other to get up the stairs and into safety first. John waited behind and ushered the thirteen year olds along, taking up the rear. Lestrade had reached the stairs and was catching up, but John caught a glimpse of a mischievous smile and a wink from the housemaster before he turned and leapt up the stairs as fast as he was able without slopping the hot chocolate out of the mug.

Lestrade gave a monstrous roar, and the shrieks of the boys were infused with hysterical laughter. John reached the top of the stairs and split from the Year Nines and followed his own year into their corridor. He slowed down, catching his breath and marvelling at the lack of spillages.

He could hear Lestrade chuckling quietly to himself on the landing. As John entered room twenty-one, the housemaster called goodnight to the house and made his way back downstairs.

John smiled to the empty room and sipped at his hot chocolate.

***

An hour later, homework finished, John was sitting on his bed, doodling in his sketch pad. He wasn’t fully concentrating and was humming along to the music softly crooning at him from his laptop. Night had well and truly fallen, smothering the world in an inky blackness, penetrated only by the eerie calls of owls from afar.

Suddenly, there was a rapping at the window. John jumped, pencil slipping and cutting a long gash of graphite through his drawing. His head whipped to the window to see, completely unsurprisingly, Sherlock Holmes.

His roommate was lounging on the branch of the senile oak tree that wandered across their window, looking as if he was more relaxed there, two stories above a concrete road, than in his own bed. He gestured for John to open the window.

John folded his arms and gave Sherlock a look as if to say, And why should I? Sherlock’s response was to raise his eyebrows and cock his head slightly, his mouth pulling up into a smirk. John couldn’t help grinning despite shaking his head to himself as he clambered down and went to the window. He unlatched it, pushed it up and stepped away.

Sherlock leapt nimbly into the room, his long coat swirling around him like a storm. John quickly shut the window again, so as to keep the warmth in. Sherlock brought in with him the intoxicating scent of the chill of the night, of wind, of open spaces, of fields and woods and a promise of rain. His curls were even more unkempt than usual, looking as if a hurricane had been at them. The boy turned and fixed John with those eyes of his - bright, wild, feral.

John turned and grabbed his pillow.

“You scared the shit out of me!” he yelled before launching it at the boy. Sherlock ducked as the pillow went sailing over his head and thudded lamely into the wall above Sherlock’s bed.

“Did I now?” teased Sherlock, and before John knew what was happening, he found his own pillow slamming into his chest, accompanied by a strange sound John hadn’t heard before.

“Are you… laughing?” It was a low, quiet sound, but it was definitely, unmistakeably, very Sherlockian, laughter. “You are!”

“Oh, shut up, John,” said Sherlock from his wardrobe.

“So, where’ve you been?” asked John a few minutes later, while his roommate was getting into his pyjamas.

“Out,” came the vague reply from below. John was lying on his front on his bed, trying to save his drawing from the long stripe that now diced it in half.

“You ruined my drawing, you know. You made me jump.”

Sherlock reached over the metal of John’s bed and whisked the sketchpad away for scrutiny, ignoring John’s protests. His eyes narrowed.

“It’s not ruined, John. That was an unnecessary hyperbole.” He tossed the pad back to John and sauntered over to the fridge. John gritted his teeth at the treatment of his sketchpad, but said nothing.

“No wonder Lestrade has a reputation for being the best housemaster in the school,” mused Sherlock pointedly, mouth full of something he’d retrieved from amongst the bugs. “If you’re already valuing him enough to put in your sketchbook.”

This was a poke at John’s drawing that evening: it had turned out to be the face of a man. It was still very sketchy and indistinct, but Sherlock’s quick eyes would never have missed that it looked remarkably like Lestrade. It wasn’t intentional; he had started the drawing as a practise of facial features, as John had always found them difficult. However, as was beginning to become the norm, Sherlock had completed John’s half-formed, unconscious thoughts.

A brief flare of anger ignited in his belly – how dare he make comments about that sort of thing? But John decided that this wasn’t an area for discussion, especially not with Sherlock Holmes, so ignored that statement altogether.

“Thank God you’re eating something,” he said instead. “I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen you eat of your own free will,”

“Eating slows me down,” the reply was almost impossible to make out, as Sherlock currently had his mouth stuffed with pastry. John looked closer.

“Is that a mince pie? It’s September – where in hell did you get a mince pie in September?”

“Mrs Hudson knows I like them, so she sends me some occasionally. She is an excellent cook.”

“Oh, also, about those fucking bugs in the fridge - ”

“An experiment, John. Surely you should have realised that. I wasn’t intending on eating them.”

“An experiment on what?” John half shouted, exasperated.

Sherlock gave him a condescending look that only infuriated John even more. “If you must know, I was recording and analysing the post-mortem effects of common household aerosols on various insects.”

John was almost more astonished that he’d got a straight answer from the boy for once than at the ridiculous experiment itself. “Why?”

“Why? For the case, that’s why. The man’s alibi depended on it.”

“Alibi, case – what?”

“Yes, alibi, John. A statement or piece of evidence proving that-”

“Yes, I know what it means, I’m not stupid. What do you mean, for the case? What case?”

Sherlock sighed, which was a very impressive feat, seeing as his mouth was again full of mince pie. “I explained all of this to you just a few hours ago, John. Surely your memory isn’t that poor.”

John had to close his eyes and count to ten before responding. “I have not been in school since midday, Sherlock.”

“It’s your fault you weren’t listening.”

“Oh my God. Seriously? I was in London, for Christ’s sake!”

“You know that I despise repeating myself, John.”

John held up his hands in defeat and got into bed. Sherlock was coming more and more to remind John of that one kid in every primary school that sat in the back of the class and made snide comments like 'I know you are, but what am I?'  whenever anyone tried to speak to them until they got beaten up.

“…But I will do so this once, in order to prevent confusion in the future,” continued Sherlock, finally sensing John’s annoyance. “You must know that I have exceptional observational skills; I could deduce nearly everything about you before you had said three words to me, if you remember.”

“Oh, I remember, alright,” said John.

Sherlock gave him another look before continuing. “Therefore, it is only natural that I am interested in crime, or, more specifically, solving crime. It is a pastime, a favourite hobby of mine, just as ‘footie’ is of yours. It keeps my brain from rotting in this godforsaken hell-hole.”

“Do you get paid?”

“No. In the past, I have informed the police of my hypotheses about particular cases, but apparently, breaking into a police station is illegal.”

John put his head in his hands. “You’re insane. Utterly mad. Brilliant, but completely off your rocker.”

“And your point is...?”

“Goodnight, Sherlock.”

Chapter Text

It was hot inside the assembly hall. Roasting, in fact. It appeared that an Indian summer was upon them, and John found himself lightly pondering the boiling point of human flesh and how many degrees he was away from it.

“…And could the lower sixth please stay behind for a few minutes, Mr Carter wishes to speak with you. Have a good day, everyone. You are dismissed.”

The headmaster waddled down from his podium as the congregation of pupils and staff in the assembly hall stood. Once he and the heads of school had left, the rest of the school filtered out, off to their first lessons of the day. The hundred-or-so lower sixth gathered in the middle block of seating as Mr Carter took his place, not at the podium on the stage, but just in front of the pupils.

Sherlock, being the petulant child that he was, stubbornly sat right at the back on his own, but with a great deal of difficulty, John managed to cajole him, under the unflinching gaze of Mr Carter and most of his year, into sitting with the rest of Doyle.

“If you’re quite finished…?”

John felt his face burning up. “Sorry,” he mumbled. Sherlock glared.

“Now. As most of you will know, lower sixth is the year in which you are able to start really giving something back to the community.” There were undisguised groans from the pupils at this. “Unfortunately, St Bartholomew’s being a full-time boarding school, you are not able to get nearly as much work experience as the rest of the youngsters in this country.” John started to pay attention. “Therefore, about five years ago, the senior team put in place a measure which would enable our pupils to gain experience and knowledge of the work place, which is essential for your preparation as productive members of today’s society.

“During some of your free time, such as free periods and lunch breaks, you now have the opportunity to work with various departments of our school, as interns. It is an informal apprenticeship system which has worked very well in the past. The way it works is simple. You choose an area of the school that you are interested in, or you think you might pursue a career in when you leave school, and 'work' there until the end of the academic year.

“Not only does this volunteering system give you a taste of the world of work outside the sheltered environment of St. Bart’s, it gives you an insight into the huge logistical task that is running a boarding school.”

Now there were whispers of interest from the group.

“And the answer to the question you’ve all been asking is; no, you do not get paid. But money should not be an incentive to further your learning and you should all consider this, as it would look fantastic on your UCAS forms.”

Groans again.

“If you are interested in taking part in this programme, please come and collect this leaflet from me, then off you go to your lessons, and don’t dawdle!”

***

John didn’t get a chance to look at the leaflet until halfway through biology, during which he was supposed to be recording the heart rate of a flea. Luckily, Sarah was his lab partner, and she took over his duties.

“Is that the list of work experience places?” She asked.

“Yeah. Are you thinking of doing it?”

“I might. What kinds of things are there? My friends dragged me away before I could get one.”

“All sorts: You can do catering in the dining hall, behind the counter stuff in the tuck shop, in the library, in the san, at the sports hall, at the swimming pool, with the groundskeepers, help out with the theatre, laundry - though I don’t know why anyone’d want to do that... IT support, lab technicians, at Speedy’s – what’s Speedy’s?” he asked, glancing up and catching Sarah's eye.

“It’s a little café in the village. They do the best hot chocolate there,”

“Oh really? I bet my hot chocolate is three hundred times better than some little café’s,” John jested.

“Is that so? You’ll have to show me sometime so I can compare,” she laughed.

“Maybe I will,” he grinned. “Maybe I will.”

It was Sherlock’s first lesson in John’s biology class after his expulsion from the year above's, and John turned around as his and Sarah’s conversation reached a lull to check on him. It didn’t take very long to find him. He seemed to be having a heated argument with his lab partner, some poor soul called Robbie, who was in Dahl house, according to his tie. Robbie was looking increasingly flustered as Sherlock got increasingly frustrated with what he would surely later deem as Robbie’s lack of competence. It wasn’t easy to read Sherlock’s emotions from his body language, but John was steadily getting better at it with all the practise he was getting.

Sherlock hadn’t spoken to John all morning, except to declare, as soon as John opened his bleary eyes at six forty-five, that he wasn’t going to breakfast. It was a surprise, therefore, when Sherlock noticed John looking at him and quickly came over to John and Sarah’s lab bench. People shrank away from him as he passed, and even Sarah rapidly averted her gaze as she saw Sherlock approaching.

Sherlock stood next to John. “I don’t think I can take much more of this,” he said desperately.

“Shh!” chided John. “Just take it easy.” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Hey, you’ve got to remember that most of us haven’t done this already, yeah?” Sherlock huffed and strode back over to his bench, lab coat flapping out behind him. John felt sorry for Robbie.

***

“You thinking of doing that work experience thing?” John asked Sherlock that afternoon. Sherlock looked up from the eyepiece of his (stolen) microscope and fixed John with a look that could have caused entire armies to drop their weapons and scamper away in retreat.

“Sorry,” John rolled his eyes when his roommate turned away. He should have known by now that Sherlock loathed it when he was interrupted during an experiment, but John questioned the validity of his experiments anyway. Some light had been shed upon his roommate’s erratic habits a couple of nights ago, with the mention of a ‘case’, but no more had been said on the subject since. John had to admit, however, that he was somewhat curious as to this unusual pastime of Sherlock’s, but he feigned a nonchalant air on the matter, and decided to wait until he was told more. He was much more likely to get more information that way, if Sherlock told him of his own accord.

John checked his watch - half one. He got ready for army.

***

Not another syllable was exchanged between the two inhabitants of room twenty-one until John was sitting on the floor almost three hours later, struggling to separate his heavy army boots from his feet. As far as John was aware, Sherlock hadn’t moved from the position John had left him in.

“Answer my question, John,” he said. John yanked the boot off his foot with a little too much force and it went flying out of his hands, nearly knocking over a lamp.

“Shit... sorry? What question?” John asked as he retrieved the rogue boot. “No, hang on; did you ask me this question between two this afternoon and now?”

Sherlock didn’t answer except for turning the fine adjustment knob of the microscope ever so slightly. “Possibly,”

“I was at army, you - ” John chose not to finish that sentence and sighed. “What was your question, Sherlock?” he asked slowly, as if he were talking to a toddler – because I may as well be, he thought.

John could feel Sherlock glowering at him as he began to undo the chunky buckle of his belt.

“I asked if any of the work experience places looked even mildly worth my time.”

“So Sherlock Holmes actually has an interest in something?’ John said, mock-surprised. He knew it would annoy Sherlock, but he didn’t really care. “Goodness gracious, I didn’t think those words would ever escape my mouth,”

“Give me the list, John.” Sherlock replied, holding out his hand, face still glued to the eyepiece. John laughed incredulously.

“What?” Sherlock snapped.

“I'm not your servant! Get it yourself, mate!”

Sherlock turned his head around very slowly and his eyes met John’s. John tried to hold his ground, but after what he hoped was a respectable length of time, the force of Sherlock’s gaze boring into his eye sockets forced him to turn away. He handed Sherlock the list.

Sherlock snatched the piece of paper from John’s hand and scanned it, his eyes darting quickly down the list. He seemed utterly bored by what he found until his eyes fixed on one spot for just a millisecond longer than it did on any of the others.  John could almost see the gears working behind his eyes. Then he finished skimming the list and handed it back to John.

“Well?” John said, taking his socks off.

“Dull,” concluded Sherlock, as he made a note of something in a notebook on his desk.

John had noticed these notebooks, and had even rifled through them once, while Sherlock was ‘out’ doing Sherlock things in Sherlock places. His roommate had an entire drawer dedicated to these notebooks, and as far as John was able to ascertain - without disturbing them too much so that Sherlock would have known that someone had been through his things - they went back many, many years; the earliest, John had hypothesised, being filled with a seven year old’s scrawls.

The notebooks themselves were beautiful. They had thick, creamy paper, alternating with ruled and blank pages, and wrapped up in dark leather skins. On the spines were numbers written in white paint, sorting them into chronological order. The current notebook open on the desk was number seventy three. As for the contents of the notebooks, they were all stuffed with Sherlock’s spidery, slanting handwriting, crawling nigh-on illegibly across the pages like something from the nineteenth century.

Sherlock never dated any pages, apart from when it was practical to record times of lengthy experiments. Said experiments were a major feature of the notebooks; results and hypotheses and methods and diagrams making up the body of the texts. Oddly, Sherlock only wrote in them with one specific pen - a fountain pen, a very old one. It lay unassumingly on Sherlock’s desk, next to a squat bottle of black ink.

“Really?” Said John, unconvinced. “I was thinking of trying it out at the san.”

“How surprising,” drawled Sherlock, voice saturated in sarcasm, and not without a nasty edge to his tone. John leaned back against the frame of his bed.

He sighed. “Alright. Out with it." 

“Out with what?” Sherlock gently lifted a slide out from the clips of the microscope and set it on the desk, his back still to John.

“Oh, come on,” John said. Sherlock turned his head away from the eyepiece, not looking at John, but at least he wasn’t looking through that goddamn microscope anymore. “You’ve been snappy and short with me all day. What is it?”

“I think you’re imagining things, John,” said Sherlock dismissively, and turned his head back to the microscope.

“Will you stop that?” John asked, hearing the annoyance seeping into his own voice despite his best efforts to remain civil. Sherlock didn’t put his face to the eyepiece, but also didn’t turn around again.

“Stop what?”

“Not paying me any attention when I speak to you!” John exclaimed, exasperated. At this, Sherlock at last turned around in his chair. He crossed one leg over the other and laced his hands together, one arm resting on the back of the chair in a projection of complete nonchalance. His face was cold, however; features neutral and eyes unblinking. There was something about the set of the mouth that reminded John of someone, but he couldn’t put his finger on whom.

“I am perfectly capable of doing two things at once,” he said, and John almost didn’t want to continue. Sherlock could certainly be intimidating when he wanted to.

“All I’m saying is, two days ago, you were prancing about stuffing your face with mince pies, like the cat who got the cream - but since last night, you’ve just been sat at your desk getting more and more agitated with whatever the hell it is you’re doing, and you’ve been even more cold to everyone than you usually are. So what's up?"

While John was speaking, Sherlock’s face had darkened and closed, mouth a thin line and jaw set.

“You have known me for under two weeks, you cannot possibly know what usual is,” he scorned, the words quick and the vowels short.

“No, but I’ve got a pretty good idea, and this isn’t it." Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “You wouldn’t be acting this way for no reason – like, that thing with Mike this morning, he was only being polite - ”

“That is irrelevant,” interjected Sherlock.

Mike had knocked for John and Sherlock that morning before breakfast, as usual, and having learned that Sherlock wasn’t going, asked him if he wanted anything bringing back from the dining hall. Sherlock, who was already deeply engrossed in whatever experiment he was working on this time, gave Mike such a look that John had had to usher Mike out of the room before the situation could turn sour.

“So, what’s the matter?” John finished.

“Don’t think that simply because you share living quarters with me that you have some divine right to intrude on my personal life,” Sherlock said, each consonant sharp, each vowel a stab wound. “Because you don’t.”

“Listen, mate, I’m only trying to help.” John said in what he hoped was a soothing tone, putting up his hands in defeat.

“Don’t ‘mate’ me,” Sherlock spat. John said nothing, but studied the vehement face of this strange boy sitting opposite him. Sherlock whipped around again to his work and threw himself back into it with a feverish intensity.

John briskly finished getting changed, pocketed some money, and went to find Mike.

Chapter Text

John knocked on the door of room nineteen.

There was a call from within. “Yeah?”

John opened the door. Mike was lounging on his bed, looking at his phone.

“Hey, Mike. Are you doing anything?”                        

“No, why?”                                                          

“Do you want to come down to the tuck shop or something?”

“Yeah, sure, let me just find some cash…”

The two boys meandered down the road, taking their time in the still afternoon warmth. Tuesday afternoons were mostly free time for the Sixth Formers, and many were out on the playing fields, making the most of the last of the golden sunshine.

John was searching fruitlessly for a way to ask Mike about Sherlock, but fortunately, Mike pointed the conversation that way himself.

“You know, John, we’re all very impressed with you,” Mike began.

John laughed, a little confused. “What for?”           

“Dealing with Sherlock as well as you seem to,” Mike said. “It’s not an easy feat.”

“Actually, I kind of wanted to talk to you about that.” John admitted.

Mike’s face fell. “You don’t want to move rooms, do you?"

“No, no,” John dismissed.

“Oh, thank God,” Mike breathed. “Because then there would have to be a room shuffle and someone would have to take your place, and you wouldn’t get many volunteers for that, let me tell you,”

“I was just wondering,” said John, “Well, two nights ago, Sherlock was… happy, or very pleased with himself at least, but since last night… it’s like he’s almost a different person.” Mike cocked his head. “I’m not explaining this very well…” John continued. “He’s just had this massive mood swing and I don’t know why and he won’t talk about it.”

Mike nodded sagely and sighed. “I’m afraid that this happens a lot, John. A whole lot.” He laughed.

“So the mood swings, that’s normal?”

“Oh, yeah,” Mike said casually. “He’ll be on top of the world one minute, and the next, he’ll be picking fights with anyone who even breathes too loud.”

“Oh.”

“I have to say, I felt so bad last year when it was decided that you, a poor, innocent new kid, would be rooming with him, but to be honest, everyone, myself included, was just so relieved to not have to share a dorm with him anymore.” Mike confessed.

“He’s not that bad,” John said, feeling as if he should defend his roommate, even though Sherlock’s current behaviour was making it difficult to do so.

“Not all the time, no,” conceded Mike. “Sometimes he’s nice enough, and can be decent company – occasionally, if you catch him in the right mood, he can even be funny. But most of the time, he a sarcastic, rude, manipulative arsehole. You can’t deny it.”

John felt guilty, but he could understand where Mike was coming from. Sherlock made no effort to speak to anyone apart from a select group of people, which mainly consisted of John, Mike and Molly. Everyone else, he either ignored or made scathing remarks at until they went away, and John had noticed that he was never in communal areas, like the common room, unless he had to be - and even then, he left as soon as he was able.

“You seem to be able to tolerate him,” ventured John.

“Of course, in small doses. He’s great if you want to have a proper, intelligent conversation with someone, but again, you’ve just got to be careful that you don’t catch him in a foul mood.” Mike explained. “But when you’ve got to live with him, like we did the last three years, he… well. Too much, you know? He’s a pretty intense guy.

“But when we first met him…” Mike laughed drily. “We were thirteen. He joined in year nine, two years later than most. First time in a big boarding house for all of us - the lower school's boarding house was tiny, modern. Homey. Eased us in. So when we got into Doyle, everyone was trying to be really grown up, acting older than we were… there were a lot of fights in the first few weeks. I think Sherlock was home-schooled before coming here, so I don’t think he really knew how to be around people, you know?” John hummed his acquiescence, brows furrowed in thought.

“Oh, god, I remember the first actual fist fight he had with one of us,” Mike groaned, shaking his head. “It was about three weeks in, maybe a bit less. It was a Sunday night, and we hadn’t seen him all day. Curfew came and went, then bedtime, then lights out, and he was still out god knows where. We didn’t say anything to Lestrade because he’d done this before, but never so late as this. So we went to sleep, pretty confident that he’d be back by morning.

“Then, about one in the morning, he came storming in; banging the door open and letting it slam behind him, stomping down the entire length of the dorm to his bed and turning on his desk lamp, waking us all up. Glen’s bed was right opposite his, so he told Sherlock to shut up.”

Glen Miller was a particularly unfriendly-looking boy from Scotland who now roomed with a German boy, Claus. He was built like a brick wall and spoke in a rough voice, and John generally tried to avoid him.

“Sherlock, of course, was having none of it, and told Glen to piss off. Of course, we were all awake by this time, and I asked Sherlock where he’d been and what he’d been doing. He said it’s none of my business and that we wouldn’t understand even if he did tell us. That didn’t go down too well. Glen, being Glen, said something like,” Mike put on an aggressive Scottish accent, “"You saying we’re stupid?" And Sherlock gave him this icy glare and went,

“’Yes, but more specifically that you, Glen, are more spectacularly boeotian than the rest. Oh, and, just between you and I, your penis is not going to get any bigger, so you need not continue to measure it every morning with Vlad’s ruler when you think no-one else is awake.’ And Vlad, whose bed was right next to Glen’s, was like,” Mike put on an overstated Russian accent, “’You do vot vith my ruler?’ And of course Glen got out of bed, strode over to Sherlock, stood two inches away from him and said,” Here the Scottish accent reappeared, “'Do you want to repeat that for me?’ And Sherlock just replied, ‘I suggest you buy your own stationery in the future,’ and that’s all it took to push Glen over the edge.

“He shoved Sherlock in the chest and he stumbled back a bit. Everyone else leapt out of bed and came charging down the dorm. Sherlock just sort of waited for Glen to come to him, which he did, very slowly, but Sherlock didn’t back away.

“When Glen swung a punch at his head, Sherlock dropped, grabbed Glen’s ankles and pulled them out from underneath him. Glen fell backwards suddenly and heavily, and Sherlock was still holding onto his ankles tight while he fell so he couldn’t do anything to protect himself from the impact, and the back of his head slammed into the floor. The rest of us - well, except Vlad – rushed in to try to pull Sherlock and Glen away from each other, but before we could do anything, Sherlock was standing over Glen. He still had his shoes on, and he stamped on Glen’s stomach, hard, and again, with his foot twisted so he got Glen’s solar plexus and winded him. Then, Ollie, who was closest, managed to get his arms around the little bugger and drag him away, but not before Sherlock kicked Glen in the spine, which was exposed from when Glen curled up on his side to protect his stomach. Hmm, I kind of fancy a Magnum.”

John had been so wrapped up in Mike’s story that he hadn’t realised they had reached the tuck shop. He was silent as they paid and began to walk back to house with their supplies (an ice cream for Mike and crisps and a Coke for John), head whirling. Mike unwrapped the ice cream and continued.

“It was kind of funny, because Sherlock twisted out of Ollie’s arms and smoothed his jacket down like some regal ponce, and then he just walked out like nothing had happened. We didn’t see him again ‘til the next morning, no idea where he’d been all night,”

“Wow,” said John, more than a little astonished. He wouldn’t have thought that Sherlock would have been so tactful at physical fighting – verbally, John knew that he could cut anyone down to size with one word and a smug smirk. He tried to imagine what a thirteen-year-old Sherlock would look like, and couldn’t help spluttering a laugh at the image that popped into his head.

“What?” Mike asked.

“Just trying to imagine what Sherlock would have looked like back then,” John grinned.

Mike laughed. “His hair was even bigger than it is now, for starters,” 

“Like, longer?”

“Not really, just bigger, like -” Mike moved his hands outwards from his head. “- poof, you know, more curly and thick, and he was so skinny, he looked like a fucking stick insect.”

“Still does!”

“Even more so,” replied Mike. “And he always looked so tired. His skin was always really thin-looking, and he always had these deep purple bags under his eyes. Mind you, he looked like that for two-and-a-bit years running, and just kept getting worse and worse, and more and more deathly and sick until... well.” Mike shook his head a little. “Poor kid."

Before John could ask what Mike was talking about, Mike carried on. “Anyway, that fight was the first of many. Glen, of course, tried to get revenge, and would probably have beaten Sherlock to death if Lestrade hadn’t been showing a prospective student's family around the house at the time and heard them fighting in the toilets. They were each given a warning and detention every day for a week, and they left each other alone after that. Even Glen isn’t that stupid. But there were a few other skirmishes here and there, and not only with boys from Doyle, either. One kid, Anderson -”

Oh, god. The same Anderson from the day Sherlock had first texted him. He sighed. 

"What?"

"Oh - nothing. Just, he's in my chemistry class." John said, which wasn't a lie, but certainly wasn't the cause of his sigh.

“Oh, really? Anyway, Anderson and Sherlock were always somehow bumping into each other, and Anderson would beat him up if he got the chance, but only if his little pack of disciples was around to goad him on.”

There was a pause, and John debated telling Mike about the incident just days previous. He knew Sherlock wouldn't want him to, so held his tongue. They walked in silence for a bit, each absorbed in their own thoughts, John running what Mike had said through his mind again.

“Mike,” John said slowly. “You said that Sherlock kept looking more and more sick until something. What did you mean?”

“Oh. Yes.” Mike began heavily. “He probably wouldn't want me to tell you, but... perhaps you should know." He considered John for a moment, before humming to himself and seemed to make a decision.

“Well. As I said, after the first few weeks, the fights were getting far too frequent for anyone to even be comfortable in the dorm any more. It wasn’t physical fighting, mind you, Sherlock just seemed to exude this air of hatred and he was so freaking wound up all the time, like a spring. The dorm just felt like a storm was constantly hovering on the horizon. And one day… God…” Mike looked as if the memory left a sour taste in his mouth. "How do I tell this story?" he muttered before taking a breath.

“For most of the first half term, Sherlock had been stealing equipment from the science labs. The thefts were very cleverly done, I have to admit. About once every couple of days, we’d come back to house to find Sherlock with another test tube, or spatula, or bottle of acid on his desk. I was in his classes for sciences and I swear to god, I never saw him take anything. I was even his lab partner for a bit, and I spent way too much time watching his hands to try and catch him at it, but I was still none the wiser by the time the seating plan changed. Those kinds of things break such a lot anyway that the teachers never even noticed that stuff was going missing.”

“Didn’t anyone rat him out?” John asked. “I thought Glen would have loved the opportunity to get him in trouble.”

Mike laughed. “Surprisingly, no.” He explained. “It’s kind of an unwritten rule in this school that everyone keeps themselves to themselves. Snitching helps no-one, and everyone has something they wouldn't want to be snitched on about.” Mike saw John’s look and smiled wryly. “I know. Makes us all sound like criminals. But if we’re all going to be cooped up here together for months at a time, shit’s going to happen. If you don't snitch on someone, the hope is that they won't snitch on you in the future. Plus, you don't want to piss of someone you literally have to live with."

John wondered if Mike was speaking from experience. Maybe he wasn't as innocent as John had previously thought.

“I digress. So, Sherlock had basically accumulated a fully-functioning chemistry lab in the dorm, and for some time, he’d been conducting this same set of experiments over and over. It involved a lot of food stolen from the dining hall, and not necessarily food that was fresh either. It was gross.

“I asked him again and again what he was doing, and finally he told me that it was important that he correctly identified every single seasoning that the cooks used in the food, and every oil, and every preservative and every way it was cooked and basically everything else about what they were feeding us. I asked him why and he said it was for ‘future reference’. The testing of said stolen food was extensive and thorough, and often smelly and the food took up most, if not all, of the space in the dorm’s one mini fridge. It was annoying to say the least.

“About a week before the first half term holiday, everyone had reached the end of their tethers. Sherlock was refusing to cooperate with our requests for him to either stop his gross experiments or take them elsewhere. Not only that, but he was being more rude and detached than usual, and everyone had cabin fever anyway - as I said, dark clouds gathering.

“One night, about eleven thirty, Sherlock was still up, still fully dressed, still tinkering about with his little chemistry set. He was making too much noise and too much light for anyone else to sleep, so Claus simply got up, walked over to Sherlock’s desk, raised a hand, and swiped an entire rack of test tubes onto the floor. The smash of the glass created this silence... I swear, I could've identified each person in the room by their breathing in the darkness. If anyone had been breathing. The only sound was the creaking of the chair as Sherlock slowly got up. I honestly thought that he was going to go ape-shit and start punching Claus’s skull in until his brains were a soup on the carpet. But all he did was put his hand on Claus’s shoulder and squeeze it, like he was consoling him for something. I saw the confusion in Claus’s eyes before they rolled back into his head and his legs gave way and he fell to the floor in a heap, unconscious.

“Nobody moved for a long time. We stared as Sherlock walked down the dorm, and he stared right back - looked each one of us in the eye as he passed our beds. And then he was gone. We didn’t see him in the dorm again.”

Chapter Text

“What?” asked John incredulously, barely more than a whisper. They were standing outside the door to Doyle, their return journey from the tuck shop now completed - but John got the feeling that this part of Mike’s story was nowhere near its end.

“Yep,” Mike said as he punched the code into the keypad beside the door. With a beep, the door gave and the two made their way upstairs. “We knew Sherlock slept in the dorm, because we would wake up and there would be a slight change in his area – a different pair of shoes at the end of the bed, or his pillow would be at a different angle. But we never saw him. Well, I say never; I saw him, just twice.

“I woke up in the middle of the night one time, I don’t remember why. I could see his figure silhouetted against the window, and it was so strange to see him there again that I just watched him for a bit. I kind of missed him, really. For all his shortcomings, he made things interesting. He must have realised I was awake because he stopped moving about and turned around. I could just see his face in the moonlight. He put a finger to his lips in a shh–ing gesture, and then continued doing whatever he was doing. I was convinced I was dreaming and went back to sleep.”

Mike held the door of room nineteen open for John, and sat on the floor with his back against his wardrobe. John did the same opposite him, against Ollie’s, watching Mike finish his ice cream.

“Obviously, we had no idea where Sherlock spent his time if it wasn’t the dorm – when he wasn’t in lessons, he seemed to vanish off the face of the earth. We would have presumed that he spent his days visiting friends in other houses, except, well. It was Sherlock. He doesn't have any friends.

“Gradually, his things started disappearing from the dorm. First it was his school books, then his science equipment. So one night, the very last time I saw him in the dorm, I pretended to be asleep until I heard Sherlock come in. It was very late, and I was thinking that he wasn’t going to come in at all that night when the door opened ever so quietly, and he padded down to his bed. 

“He shuffled about for a bit, and I heard some clinking, like glass on glass. Then he padded back out. As soon as the door shut behind him, I got out of bed and half-ran, half-tiptoed out of the dorm and followed him. He must have heard me - in fact I’m sure he did, but he didn’t turn around or try to stop me. Instead, he climbed the stairs all the way to the top of the house, his arms full of conical flasks, to where the laundry room is. He walked down the corridor in total darkness, and you can imagine my confusion because -

"There’s nothing down that corridor," finished John. "Except the fire escape, right?"

Mike nodded. "Exactly. But half way down the corridor, just outside the laundry room, he stopped and put his equipment on the floor. He grabbed one of the spare laundry baskets sitting in the corridor and upturned it. And the, he stepped up onto it, reached up, and pushed on the ceiling to reveal a hatch in the ceiling above his head.

“He lifted the conical flasks one by one into the hole. Once that was done, he jumped up, caught something resting just inside the hatch, and pulled out a ladder. He used it to climb up into the hole. That part of the house used to be servants' quarters, years ago, so the ceiling is pretty low, but it was still a quite a sight, to see that funny, skinny kid disappearing up into the ceiling. He took the basket up with him, then pulled the ladder in after him and the hatch was gently lowered into place again from within, and I took that as my cue to leave."

John was speechless. He breathed a curse and shook his head to himself. Mike watched him with an expression that made John think he pitied him for some reason. Then he continued.

“Year nine passed in much the way as would be expected now that Sherlock lived in the ceiling: quietly. He avoided everyone as much as he could, but when he did speak to us, he was polite, maybe a little too polite. One by one, we stopped talking to him altogether.

Mike paused, and, looking up from twisting the now-bare ice cream stick in his hands, saw the expression on John’s face.

“I know,” he sighed. “It sounds awful, doesn’t it? It kind of was. I’ve got to admit, I’m not proud of myself. I still chatted to him when I could, but the others didn’t bother, and even my efforts became half-hearted after a while.  You’ve got to understand that he wasn’t putting any effort in either. He sat alone in the dining hall and stopped going to sport. He never spoke to anyone unless he wanted something, or if you spoke to him first. It wasn’t shyness – I don’t think he can actually experience the feeling. We didn’t like him and he didn’t like us, and that’s just the way it was."

"You didn't tell any teachers that he was literally living in the roof?" John asked, astounded.

Mike avoided his eyes and shook his head. "We were young, we were angry at him, we were..." he sighed. "I can't justify it now. It became our normal, our status quo. I wish we had seen sense, I wish we had known what was coming, but... we were blind." A pause. Mike cleared his throat.

“So the year passed. I was kind of worried about him, alone all the time up there, doing god knows what, but I thought that, surely, in year ten, he’d see sense and come back to us when we moved into the new dorm. But I should have known better.

“When the next year started, and we moved into the year ten dorm, Sherlock’s stuff came with us, but not Sherlock. He still lived in the half-darkness of the top floor and as the months wore on, I started to get increasingly worried.

“Around Christmas time, he stopped going to meals. In the spring term, he sometimes literally went weeks without uttering a single word. Then came the late-night violin concertos and the absences from lessons that he refused to explain. And that's when the teachers began to notice, but they just gave him detention upon detention and never asked any questions. Our house master then was a real evil piece of shit, nothing like Lestrade. So no-one did anything.

“Some time in May, I woke up at about six thirty in the morning with a fever. I knew that I needed to get to the san, so I forced Ollie to wake up and we let ourselves out of the house and began very slowly to make my our over there. While I was concentrating on not passing out on the road, I heard the sound of a violin coming from the house. We looked up, and there was Sherlock, sitting with his back to us on the fucking roof, playing this beautiful piece on a violin. Nobody had known that he could play, and if I wasn’t feeling so crappy, I would have stayed and heard it out. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, John, I swear.

“What I said earlier, about him looking more and more deathly – I wasn’t exaggerating. Sometimes he wouldn’t come down from his hole for days, and when he finally did, it was like watching a corpse trying to convince you it was alive. His skin was so pale… I can’t think of any way to describe it apart from wet paper. He was so fucking thin, John. In the summer, I could count every rib and every vertebra through his school shirt. When we broke up for the summer holidays, I hoped beyond hope that when we came back for year eleven, he would be better, that his family would sort him out at home, that the sun would give him strength - because it was clear as hell that he was ill.

“I couldn’t have been more wrong. When we returned to school in September, last September this is, he looked like he was on the verge of collapse. He looked as if he hadn’t slept all summer, or eaten, for that matter. It was a miracle that he could still support the weight of his own head on his neck. We moved into a new dorm, but this time, his things didn’t migrate into it with us. His area was bare until we came to a silent agreement amongst ourselves that we would use it for storage.

“He started up his usual routine again of skipping days of school at a time, and what confused me most was that no-one seemed to care. That he looked like he had a terminal illness, that he was skiving off lessons, that he never ate. I told Ollie my concerns, but he just said that I should let him do his own thing. It was Lestrade’s first year here, and I don’t think he knew Sherlock actually existed until a few months in. Sure, his name was on the register, but I think he just assumed he’d left the school and no-one had bothered to amend the records. I used to stay up into the small hours and strain my ears for Sherlock’s violin, but he wasn’t playing anymore. 

“That first half term holiday of the year, I am pretty sure he didn’t go home. He just stayed up there, alone. His family didn’t care. The pupils didn’t care. No one cared. No one except me and Molly Hooper. She was as much of a friend to him as I was, and we’d been texting each other about him every now and then.

“A bit after we came back from the October half term holiday, Sherlock disappeared again. It was nothing to worry about. He’d done this countless times before. But when the five-day mark came around, I texted Molly. He’d never been gone this long before. We agreed that he was probably fine. But something was nagging at me in the back of my head. I stood under his hatch for hours, that night, until I was swaying on my feet and falling asleep where I stood.

“The next day, Molly came over, worry all over her face. We decided that if he wasn’t back by nightfall, we’d have to do something. By that evening, however, I was restless, and I couldn’t concentrate. Something was up, I could feel it. So I asked around if anyone had seen Sherlock, and the responses I got, John…” Mike shook his head. “Nobody gave a flying fuck about the boy. It made me scared, honestly. I went and stood under his hatch again. The silence that came from that ceiling was just… I was imagining all these horrible scenarios in my head and I couldn’t stop. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t not do anything anymore.

“I went up to the corridor. I tipped out a basket of laundry and stood on it. I pushed on the hatch around a bit until I found the ladder, and pulled it down. I climbed up into the darkness, no idea what I’d find.

“I found myself in the attic. I hadn't even known Doyle had an attic before. It's up in the gables of the house, and the ceiling is slanted, so I had to crouch in most places. It was early evening, and the sun came in through the windows and made the dust dance in the stale air. The walls are crumbling, you can see hundreds of years' worth of wood, plaster, brick. The floor is super uneven and I was afraid to move in case the rotting floorboards broke underneath me. It looked like it had been abandoned for a very long time. I doubt anyone besides Sherlock and I had been in there in half a century.

“There was an old bookcase on its side, and boxes and boxes of stuff – toys, books, cricket bats, clothes, you name it. There was even an old rocking horse, one glass eye hanging from its socket by a single thread. In the middle of all this chaos was a table, its surface covered with Sherlock’s belongings; mainly his chemistry set and his notebooks. Funny to see modern GCSE textbooks next to all that old crap. There was another room just to the side, and what I found in there made me - " His voice faltered. He cleared his throat.

“In there, I found Sherlock’s pillow and duvet on a ratty-looking mattress on the floor, but that wasn’t it. The floor was littered with empty syringes. Cigarette butts formed a thick line of defence around his bed. His violin was snapped in two, hanging from its strings from the ceiling like some… perverted mobile above a baby’s cot. I had to close my eyes for a second. I could feel a breeze on my face, which made me realise that the window was open. I went to the window and discovered you can get onto a flat part of the roof from there.

“I was wondering how many nights Sherlock had spent standing where I was, looking out at the horizon as the sun set, when I noticed the foot. I’ll be honest: my heart stopped. It was sticking out from behind a parapet. I scrambled out of the window and ran over to it. And sure enough, attached to the foot was Sherlock.

“You should have seen him, John. He was lying there on the roof as if he’d been shot. He looked like it too, minus a wound, like all the blood had been drained from his body. He was barefoot and was only wearing his school trousers and shirt. I yelled his name, but he didn’t react. That was the first time in my life that I had ever felt panic. True panic. My mind went into overdrive and shutdown all at once but my body somehow knew what to do. I put my fingers to his neck and I think I started crying when I felt a pulse. It was so faint, and so sporadic, but it was there. I think I must have called Molly and told her to get Lestrade and phone an ambulance. I don’t remember what happened after that.”

“Oh my God…” breathed John. Mike looked up as if he’d forgotten John was there. He looked a bit shaken. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” answered Mike. “I, er, I haven’t told anyone the full story before.” He smiled a little shyly. John smiled back.

“I thought Sherlock was a, what was it, a manipulative arsehole?” John jested gently.

“Oh, he is,” assured Mike. “But he's human, he… nobody cared, John.” His smile faded. “Nobody seemed the least bit affected when I told them that he’d been missing for five days. Nobody deserves that lack of empathy, not even him. And seeing someone lying there like they’re dead, that’s enough to make anyone… even if you don’t like the person, they’re a real person, you know? With their own thoughts and worries and…” He faltered. “God, I sound sappy.” He laughed.

“No, not at all. I get it,” John said. “I really do.”

Mike looked at him for a second, then continued. “The next thing I remember clearly is being in the hospital. Apparently, when Molly and Lestrade arrived, I had wrapped Sherlock up in my hoodie and was sort of hugging him. Then the ambulance people showed up and took over. Anyway, the next few hours were a blur of Molly crying, and talking to people in uniforms, and Lestrade looking serious, and a lot of shaking. I remember I was shaking for quite a bit.

“My memories start up again properly when I was sitting in the waiting room with Lestrade. Molly’d had to stay at school. I had to be there because I had been the one who’d found Sherlock. Lestrade had to be there because he’s our legal guardian when we’re at school, obviously. After I’d told him what I’ve just told you, about how he moved to the attic and how everyone pretty much forgot about his existence, we didn’t speak for a very long time.

“What felt like decades later, this nurse came up to us and told us that we could go see him. So we went down all these corridors until we got to Sherlock. He looked pretty much the same as he had on the rooftop, but now he had all these tubes sticking in him and he was wearing a hospital gown. The doctor told us that he’d contracted hypothermia, and he’d been unconscious for about two hours when I’d found him. He told us that, judging by the amount in his system, he’d almost overdosed on cocaine. At that point, I had to sit down on that not-quite plastic hospital floor for a second.

“Then I had to go speak to the doctor in private, and then Lestrade had to go in and probably apologise for not being much use because, as I said, he hadn’t known of Sherlock's existence until about four hours previously. Then he had to fill out some forms, and then he drove us back to school.

“There wasn’t much conversation between us. We were both exhausted, and I was texting Molly all the updates. It took an exchange of about two sentences to work out that we would tell the other kids about the hypothermia, but leave Sherlock to decide whether to tell the rest or leave it at that.

“Then Lestrade told me that what I’d done on the roof between finding Sherlock and Lestrade and Molly arriving was what had kept Sherlock on ‘the more temporary side of unconsciousness’, what with the cold and all the cocaine inside him. He said he had been a police officer before coming to work here. Then he told me that I should be a paramedic someday, and then we both shut up."

Chapter Text

“Sherlock was transferred to the school’s san about a week and a half later. He didn’t get any visitors apart from me, Molly and Lestrade. Lestrade brought him school work, which I think he appreciated more than Molly’s flasks of coffee and tubs of cakes. Whenever we went to see him, his bed would be blanketed with newspapers, and he’d look so indignant that he was still there, and he’d ask for all of this random information and weird details about people, like what the librarian had had for lunch the other day, or where the cleaners left the laundry detergent on Thursday. It was quite funny, and we knew better than to ask why he wanted to know all that stuff. We got the results of the HIV tests they did at the hospital - because of the syringes, you know - but luckily, he was fine.

“The school sent a policeman 'round to Doyle to get rid of the syringes from Sherlock’s lair, and search turn his things upside down for anymore cigarettes or drugs or generally dangerous things. Only once that was done was he allowed out of bed, after about a week in the san. Lestrade boarded up the hatch to the attic and Sherlock moved back into the dorm.

“Unfortunately for us, the nurse had confiscated Sherlock’s chemistry set and Lestrade promised to do weekly checks of Sherlock’s area to make sure he wasn’t hiding anymore contraband. However, Sherlock managed to bribe me into helping him rebuild his little lab up again. All I had to do was let him keep his stuff in my drawers, in return for him not being vile to the others. In my defence, it was a fair deal, and I wasn’t about to let the situation in the dorm be as icy as it had been years previously.

“However, the atmosphere was certainly frosty to begin with. Everyone kept asking me what had happened, and I dutifully told them that he’d got hypothermia and had fallen unconscious on the rooftop. Once I’d convinced them all that he hadn’t tried to commit suicide, or set up a meth lab in the attic, things began to get a little better. But still nobody talked to him. I told them that it would be much better if they would, and that I had made sure he wouldn’t do his mind-reader tricks on them. Eventually, they agreed, and stopped talking around him so much.

“Of course, he had to see the school counsellor every week and he had to go out of school for rehab sessions every Sunday. I would have paid to have been able to bear witness to those sessions, because it was obvious, even to me, that he didn’t want to cooperate."

“Did he not have massive withdrawal? What with the cocaine and the cigarettes?” asked John.

“Oh, hell, yeah,” Mike stressed. “The Christmas and New Year period was the worst. He didn’t lash out at anyone, but he was really jumpy, and you could see that it was a physical strain to keep being polite. He would drum his fingers on his desk all the time, and bounce his legs when he was sitting down. He didn’t sleep much, and he paced about, day and night. There were other little things he did, like fiddling with pins all the time, that worried me a bit, but weirdly, he didn’t even attempt to relapse. Or, if he did, which is more likely than not, I certainly didn't notice. He has a lot of self-control, which made me wonder why he got into it in the first place. I asked him once, when nobody else was around, but all he said was ‘bored’ and then refused to talk about it again.”

There was a pause.

“You know, his mum died when he was twelve.” John said hesitantly.

“No… I had no idea."

John chewed the inside of his lip. “And his dad hasn’t spoken to him in years, since the funeral, I think,”

“Holy crap,” mused Mike. “So who looks after him?”

“Older brother.”

“That throws a lot of light on a lot of things.”

“Mm,” John hummed. “How come he didn’t get kicked out?” 

“He nearly did.” Mike answered. “Because it was only the first time he’d been caught with both the smoking and the drugs, he was only supposed to get suspended for ages, not expelled. But because this all happened just a few months before our GCSEs, that couldn’t happen without affecting his grades. There was a big fight about it between all the important teachers. Most of them said that even if he was suspended, he was clever enough get all A-stars anyway, even without the last few months of preparations. Lestrade, and maybe two others, said the opposite, and it took some doing, but finally, they managed to win the others over. If he ever does it again, though, the cocaine or the smoking, or anything else for that matter, he will get expelled on the spot. And probably arrested.”

“So he didn’t get punished at all?”

“Oh, no, he did. He had a four hour detention every Saturday night until the end of the year.”

“Jesus Christ. Rough.” Said John. 

A pause.

“John,” began Mike.

“Yeah?”

“If you don’t mind my asking, why - er, how come -” Mike fumbled.

“Why do I go to a therapist?” John finished. He had known this would come up sooner or later.

“Er, yeah,” Mike looked relieved to have been put out of his misery. “Sorry, you don’t have to answer if -”

“No, it’s fine.” John cut him off. And it was. He supposed there was no harm in just one person knowing. “My dad died, and I was… involved, and I’m not doing very well with the whole moving on thing, I guess."

“Oh.”

“But it’s okay, I'm not - ” mentally ill, John was about to say. But he couldn't bring himself to lie. He sighed. “I just have nightmares a lot.”

“So you’re not some lunatic then?” Mike grinned.

John laughed. “I didn’t say that.” he joked.

Just then, the door opened and Ollie entered, looking surprised at John being in his room.

“Hey, Ollie,” John greeted him.  Ollie just looked at him and flashed him a tight smile. Lestrade, who had nicknamed everyone in the house, it seemed, called Ollie by ‘Ferb’, after the cartoon character. It was very accurate.

“Oh shit, is it five already?” Mike exclaimed, jumping up. “I’m supposed to be meeting Emily now, fuck…” Mike scrambled about on his side of the room.

“Oh, God, sorry, Mike.” John got up.

“No, no, don’t worry,” Mike dismissed John’s apology, pulling his shirt off over his head and tugging on a different one. “Not your fault."

“Er, I’ll just leave you to it then.” John went to the door. “Hey, Mike?”

Mike turned around. “Yeah, man?”

“Thanks.”

“No prob,” said Mike, returning John’s grin as John left for his own room.

***

When John entered room twenty-one, Sherlock was sitting cross-legged atop his bunk, eyes closed, hands pressed together against his chin. If John didn’t know better, he would have said that he was praying.

“Hey, Sherlock,” John called, then remembered their less-than-friendly conversation earlier and that perhaps Sherlock wasn’t too eager to talk to him at the moment. It felt to John as if a million years had passed since then, but realised that Sherlock probably didn't feel the same.

John held his breath, waiting for Sherlock to turn his sharp tongue on him once again, but Sherlock didn’t respond at all.

It was ten minutes later, John sitting at his desk, having thought that he might as well get an early start on his maths homework, but now heavily regretting that decision, when Sherlock finally replied.

“Hello, John.” He said, the suddenness of his greeting making John jump. John couldn’t help laughing.

“Hello, you bastard,” he shook his head. “Alright?”

John didn’t get an answer to that, but he wasn’t expecting one.  He went back to his maths, and had spent around five minutes writing numbers and then crossing them out when Sherlock piped up again.

“John,” he started, his voice measured and deliberate, obviously remembering their argument that afternoon. “Would you mind doing me a favour?”

John turned around. Sherlock was still sitting in the same position as he had been when John had come in, eyes still closed. “That depends on the favour,” John replied.

“Would you go to the library and get out a book for me?”

“Now?”

“Now.” Sherlock confirmed.

“Only if you say please.” John bargained, only half joking. Sherlock’s eyelids flickered, but remained shut.

“Just one tiny ‘please’,” John coaxed. Sherlock opened his mouth, but quickly shut it again. “Come on, say it with me,”

“John,”

“P… p…”

“John-”

“Pl…”

“I-”

“Plea…”

“Fine!” Sherlock exclaimed. He took a deep breath. “Please.

“There,” John laughed, getting up. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Sherlock huffed. “Now, what book would you like?”

***

John shivered as he walked. The sun was slowly sinking beneath the horizon, sucking all the warmth out of the early evening air. The sunset splashed the sky with a fiery orange, coating the dull grey stones of the library with a delicate honey.

This was the first time John had been inside the library, and when he opened the door, he wondered why. The interior smelt exactly the way libraries should; the millions of pages contained within filtered the air into the unmistakable thick musk of the written word. The wooden floorboards were shiny, as though they were wet, polished to perfection over hundreds of years. The rows upon rows of shelves stretched high to the ceiling, towering over him in such a way that was reminiscent of the great forest of oaks they were no doubt carved from. The lights were low, and what could only be described as a scholarly silence beckoned him in.

Sherlock had sent him for a very particular book, and John had memorised its index number. He set off down the central aisle as quietly as possible, his shoes squeaking conspicuously on the floor. An impossibly long table ran the length of the building; John guessed that it must have sat over fifty people. As he progressed down the library, John realised that none of the shelves were labelled, or labelled legibly at least. The writing had faded over time to leave just the ghosts of letters on the yellowing paper stapled to the ends of the bookcases, and John realised he’d managed to get himself lost inside one single room.

He reached the end wall of the building, which was, naturally, a long bookcase, whose books' index numbers were nowhere near the one he sought. He turned around and went back the way he came. He reached the entrance to the building none the wiser, and although barely anyone was in the library, he still felt hugely silly making his way back down again.

“You alright, John?”

The whisper came from behind him. John turned around, fighting to control the blood flow to his face. A familiar-looking boy was leaning against a bookcase.

“Uh, I’m a bit lost, to be honest.” John whispered back, studying the boy’s features and racking his memory as to where he’d seen him before. He was pretty muscular for his age, with blond hair in a choppy cut and brown eyes, and was about three inches taller than John. “I’ve never actually been in the library before,” he admitted, coming a bit closer so that he didn’t have to whisper so loudly.

John glanced at the books spread on the table where the boy had evidently just been sitting. One was open on a page filled with diagrams of mountains and the other was closed, the words ‘AS Level Sport Science’ in large lettering on its cover.  Probably not in any of my classes, then, John thought.

The boy chuckled softly. “S’alright. What’re you looking for?”

John described the book Sherlock had sent him for. The boy raised his eyebrows at the mention that the book in question was on the topic of the representation of male genitalia in sculpture throughout history.

“It’s not for me,” John hastily explained. “My roommate sent me instead of getting off his lazy arse and coming to get it himself."

John followed the boy to one of the other bookcases. “This is the art history section, it’ll probably be around here somewhere.” He said. “I could help you look if you want?”

“No, that’s okay, I have the index number. I’m really sorry, but I know you from somewhere and I just can’t place it.” John prompted.

“We’re in Army together,” the boy replied, a little surprised. “I’m Seb Moran, the NCO?”

“Oh, God, we do - I feel like an idiot, I only saw you a few hours ago,” John apologised.

“Don’t worry, I get it a lot - forgettable face, apparently.” Seb smiled.

The librarian, a middle-aged woman with greying roots, put her head around the end of the bookshelf. “Time to pack up, boys.”

“I’ve got to go,” Seb said. “See you.”

“Ta, Seb.” John whispered as the other boy made his way back to his books. John could see it now; Seb almost marched when he walked.

***

“What do you want this particular book for anyway?” John asked as he handed Sherlock the book for the sake of which he had nearly got locked in the library overnight. “You don’t take art.”

Sherlock hadn’t moved, but had finally opened his eyes, and as soon as the book was in reaching distance, he snatched it and opened the front cover. His eyes lingered for a moment before he slammed it shut again.

“I knew it.” He exclaimed happily. “Wonderful!”

“What’s wonderful?” John knew it was likely that Sherlock wouldn’t answer, but he asked anyway.

“This book was last taken out on the sixth of July, so…” Sherlock was muttering to himself while scrolling through something on his phone. He tapped the screen and started typing. “… There.” He tapped the screen again and chucked his phone onto his bed beside him. “May I have some of your crisps?”

“A simple ‘thank you’ would be nice,” John said. “And what crisps?”

“The crisps you bought when you went to the tuck shop with Mike this afternoon, no doubt mainly discussing me on the walk. You didn’t eat them, but put them in the drawer in your desk and subsequently forgot about them.”

John paused, then shook himself and continued taking his shoes off. “When was the last time you ate?” he asked.

“Two days ago.”

“In that case, sure.” John reached for the crisps. “Actually, have the whole packet.” He added, throwing the slightly crushed foil bag up to Sherlock.

Sherlock didn’t speak again until he’d finished John’s crisps and was licking his fingers to get the salt and grease off.

“I needed that particular book to solve the final details of a minor case.” He said, lying back on his bed.

“And why couldn’t you have got it yourself?”

“Because I have yet to return some books that are a couple of years overdue, therefore, as you can imagine, I’m not very popular among the librarians. So, thank you.”

“You’re a menace, I swear to God,” John laughed. “I share a room with a mad man,”

“You’re the one who has a therapist” returned Sherlock, shocking John into more laughter, and earning himself a pillow to the face.

Chapter Text

John woke on the morning of his seventeenth birthday in a cold sweat. He was alone in room twenty-one, Sherlock’s bed already empty and perfectly made, as ever. The house was still, the only sounds being the muted chatter of the birds outside and his own breathing.

He stood at his wardrobe for a long time that Sunday morning. Eventually, he decided on black jeans, into which he tucked a light pink shirt, and a dark blue jumper over the top. He tried to tame his bed hair into some semblance of order, but with little success. As an afterthought, he switched his usual bright Converse for his scuffed school shoes. It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do.

***

“…and, I believe, it’s our very own John Watson’s birthday today,” Lestrade announced as he closed the register. Fifty faces turned to John’s, some smiling, others not. Mike playfully slapped him on the shoulder.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” he chided gently. John shrugged.

“Happy birthday, Doc,” Lestrade finished. “Have a good one."

John gave him his best smile and wished to be anywhere else but there.

***

The walk to the village church was long anyway, but on that Sunday, it stretched out into a tortuous eternity. Sherlock was still nowhere to be seen, so John had no choice but to walk with Mike and the others and make conversation.

“You’re looking smart this morning,” said Eric. “Doing something special?”

“Not really, just going home to see my parents and my sister.”

“Going home again?” Glen shouted from the front of the group. “You’re one lucky bastard, you know that, Watson?”

“Parents?” queried Mike quietly, stressing the ‘s’. John raised his eyebrows briefly and hoped Mike wouldn’t need more of an explanation. “Oh,” he said. “Well, tell your dad I say hi, yeah?”

***

The vicar chose that morning to give a sermon on forgiveness, and John nearly laughed aloud at the irony.

***

The mid-morning sunshine was a relief after what had felt like eaons inside the dingy church.

“Hey, John,” Mike struggled to raise his voice above the din of the school streaming out of the slowly rotting doors. “We’re going to Speedy’s, you coming?”

“No, I’ve got to get going,” John returned.

“All right. See you tonight, then.”

“Bye!” John called as the others wandered noisily off down a side-street. He walked by himself back to school, most of the other pupils having the same idea as Mike and spreading out over the tiny village - and dear God, he was glad of the brief respite from their probing questions and loud voices.

***

Room twenty-one was still empty when John returned to it. He pocketed his wallet, grabbed his backpack, and had one foot out of the door when it occurred to him that he should let Sherlock know where he was. He tore a page from the back of his English book, having failed to locate a pad of paper, and quickly scrawled a note. He folded it in half, addressed it and left it in the only place Sherlock was guaranteed to see it – the middle of the floor.

***

John had no idea why his mum still insisted on performing this childish ritual, but was, in a way, intensely grateful that she did.

He sat at the head of the table in the darkness, listening to the hushed voices coming from the kitchen.

“Sh, sh, shh, Harry, sh, okay…”

Despite himself, John grinned as Harry burst into the dining room, singing at the top of her lungs.

Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…” his mum followed, joining in the song, her face lit up by the sputtering candles on the cake she was carrying in outstretched arms.

Happy birthday, dear Johnny…” she set the cake down in front of him and turned on her camera.

Happy birthday to you!"  Harry clapped and whooped behind him.

“Make a wish,” urged his mum.

John thought for a second, then leant forward and blew out the candles as the flash of the camera left dancing dots on his retinas.

“What did you wish for?” asked Harry, as she helped him remove the candles.

“Now that would be telling,” returned John, tapping his nose with an icing-covered finger.

***

Once the Watsons had each polished off a generous slice of cake, John’s mum hurried out of the dining room saying something about John’s presents. When she sidled back into room, she was concealing something behind her back.

“Okay John, whose do you want to open first?” she asked.

“Oh, do mine, do mine!” Harry chirped.

“Alright then, Harry’s it is,” said Mrs Watson, revealing a small package wrapped in gaudy gold paper. It was soft and malleable in John’s hands, and he went through an overwrought charade of holding the paper up to his ear and shaking it, then sniffing it, then eyeing it from every which way, until Harry was bursting with anticipation.

“Is it… socks?” John grinned impishly.

“Just open it!” Harry shouted.

John picked at the tape and carefully peeled off the wrapping paper, uncovering a white garment folded into a square. He took it by the shoulders and held it up, the fabric tumbling open.

“Every doctor needs a lab coat,” Harry smiled.

“Wait…” John brought the coat closer to his eye, noticing some navy blue stitching above the chest pocket. “You didn’t…?”

“She did,” confirmed his mum.

“But you hate sewing!” John exclaimed. Harry smiled shyly. John ran his thumb over the wobbly lettering. “Dr. John H Watson…” he read to himself. “Thank you so much Harry, it’s the best.” He folded the coat and placed it on the table before going over to Harry and giving her a bone-crushing hug.

“Ugh, stop, John - do mum’s now,” she wheezed.

“Mine’s not nearly as interesting as Harry’s,” John’s mum said.

“I don’t believe it for a second.” John dismissed as he took the second package, wrapped in the same paper as the first. It felt much the same as Harry’s did, but firmer and heavier.

“Is this socks?” John joked.

“Open it, you great wally,” Mrs Watson laughed.

Just as carefully as before, John slowly removed the wrapping paper. Something made of dense, dark fabric fell into his lap. He unfolded it and held it up. It was a dark grey shooting jacket, with an even darker collar and shiny, fake leather shoulder and elbow pieces.

“Try it on,” urged Harry.

John did as she said, slipping his arms into the sleeves and shifting and adjusting the coat until it felt just right. It was fitted and John could tell it would be perfectly cosy during the winter, the cotton durable and long-lasting.

“It’s gorgeous, mum, thank you,” he grinned, as his mum got up and walked over to him. She hugged him briefly, before stepping back and running her eyes over the coat.

“Goodness, I was so anxious that it wouldn’t fit, or that you wouldn’t like it, or...”

“I love it, mum,” he assured her.

“It suits you, John,” Harry said.

“Yes, it does,” agreed Mrs Watson. She fiddled with the collar and the buttons, smoothing down the lapels and tugging at the fabric. “Oh, look at you, so grown up,” she mused, before dropping her hands and stepping back once more. “Right then, shall we go and see dad?”

***

“No, Mrs Walsh, you don’t understand, I need a gallon of bleach, a gallon,” Sherlock emphasised to the bewildered pensioner behind the counter in the post office.

“Well, I’m sorry dear, but we’ve only two bottles left.”

“Useless,” muttered Sherlock, rolling his eyes and striding out of the shop, the tinkling of the bell lessening the effect of his exit somewhat.

The village was crawling with the pubescent insects he had the misfortune to go to school with, the church service having finished, oh, about half an hour ago. He eyed each one with distaste as he passed them, so wrapped up in their little existences as they were.

His phone buzzed violently in his pocket, and he groaned at the flashing name on the screen. He answered it and put it to his ear.

“What do you want?” he hissed.

“How lovely to speak to you too,” drawled the voice on the other end.

“My question remains unanswered.”

“What were you going to do with all that bleach?”

“Will you stop spying on me, Mycroft? It’s highly irritating."

“Oh, it was hardly spying, you were standing directly below a security camera. Tsk, tsk, baby brother, you slipped up."

“Piss off,” Sherlock spat, and hung up. Almost immediately, the phone lit up again. “Do you not have anything else to do? No wars to start over oil, no international leaders' boots to lick?”

“Sometimes you are beyond immature, Sherlock. Answer my question.”

“Only if you answer mine,” Sherlock sang. He rounded a corner and nearly walked into Anderson.

“I’m being serious Sherlock,” Mycroft continued. Anderson stuck out a foot and Sherlock tripped, cursing himself for falling for something so predictable. Anderson's friend laughed at him as he glared up at Anderson. He got to his feet. Anderson stuck his middle finger up at Sherlock before walking away.

Sherlock sighed to himself before dusting himself down and picking up his phone from where it had landed on the concrete. The corner was a little chipped but it was otherwise unharmed.

“Sherlock? Are you still there?”

“Leave me alone, Mycroft,” Sherlock snapped, and hung up.

***

His phone didn’t stop ringing for the next two hours, but Sherlock paid it no attention as he kept a long vigil on the rooftop of the house opposite the village police station, making half-hearted notes as to who entered and exited the building. While it was a menial task, it just about kept his mind busy and neatly avoided the gaping maw of boredom that endlessly threatened to swallow him whole.

It was only when the incompetent Detective Inspector looked up from his sandwich and noticed him on his lofty perch that Sherlock slipped quietly from the roof and made his way back to St. Bart's.

The police station was boring anyway. Or, more specifically, this entire village was boring, and therefore the police force had nothing to do except sit around and chat for hours on end, which made them, by default, vapid and quotidian beings and Sherlock wanted to pound his head on the slate tiles of the rooftops with the monotony of it all.

Sherlock made it back to Doyle without any more disturbances. However, that just gave him the opportunity to sink further into a contemplative state of mind, which, he had found, never lent itself to pleasant thoughts.

He kicked open his and John’s door and was about to flounce onto his bed when his eye was caught by a piece of paper lying in the middle of the floor. He picked it up. It was folded in half and the words:

TO THE GIT I SHARE MY ROOM WITH

…were written on the outside.

John’s handwriting, a note informing me of his absence because of the first anniversary of his father’s death, paper torn from the back of his… English book.

Sherlock got out his phone. 47 MISSED CALLS, it screamed at him. He ignored that and sent John a text. He paused for thought, checked his watch, then sent another two in quick succession. He wasn’t quite sure why – that age-old illusion named ‘politeness’ probably had something to do with it.

I should probably read the note as well. Damn.

He opened it up.

Hey Sherlock,

I’ve gone down to London again for the day because it’s my dad’s death-iversary, or whatever you call it. I’ll be gone til about 4pm, maybe 5, so try not to ask me any questions while I’m gone because you’ll just get irritated when I don’t answer.

See you then - JW.

PS: Also, it’s my birthday.

PPS: I hope you got me something expensive

PPPS: That was a JOKE, I just want to emphasise that.

PPPPS: When we first met, you told me that sometimes you don’t speak for days on end. I suppose that’s okay, but sometimes I wish it wasn’t the case.

PPPPPS: Alright I’m actually going now, bye you fucker

Sherlock stopped. His lips formed a silent ‘Oh,’ as understanding whipped through him. So much data gathered from this one piece of paper in his hands… Sherlock folded up the note and stuffed it in a drawer for future reference and began pacing, twirling his phone in his hands as he thought.

So John’s father died on John’s sixteenth birthday. But Sherlock still didn’t understand how, and that infuriated him.

From the way John reacted when I asked him about his father’s death, it’s highly likely that Mr Watson’s death was a consequence of something related to John himself, or John’s birthday, as the death appears to have occurred on his birthdaySherlock thought. And the fourth post script… that kind of statement in that unrelated context couldn’t have been unprovoked. Probably stemming from his conversation with Mike on Tuesday. Probably referring to… last year. Stamford told John about that. Why? Did John ask? If so, why did he ask? Is he… concerned for me? Is he going to use the information as leverage of some kind? Or blackmail? Idiot.

Sherlock wanted to ask John all of these things, but a voice in the back of his head (that sounded uncannily like Mycroft’s) cited ‘politeness’ again, and so he deleted the long and interrogative text he wasn’t aware he’d been typing as he thought and sent a shorter, safer one.

He lay back on his bed and, for the first time in a long time, he thought about his mother.

***

“Hey, dad,” John began, kneeling down where he liked to imagine his father’s sock-clad toes were. On Christmas Days when he was little, he and Harry used to wake their parents at the crack of dawn by tickling their feet. Harry, of course, refused to go anywhere near ‘dad’s stinky man-feet’ so it was always John’s duty to rouse their father.

“I got these flowers for you.” He set them down beside the ones that mum and Harry had already left. “To be honest, they’re from that kiosk at train station, but I thought you’d like them because, well, they’re your favourite colours and all. I, er, I hope you’re doing okay, wherever you are – that is, if you are anywhere at all.” John coughed and picked at his jeans.

“I suppose you’ll want to hear all about St. Bart’s, but there’s not much to tell, really. It’s a school, pretty much the same as any other school. I still want to be a doctor… oh, I wish you could meet my biology teacher, you’d love him. He’s this old guy and he’s mad as a hatter, and he cracks these really crappy puns all the time and I’m the only one who laughs at them. And you’d like my housemaster as well. He used to be a policeman, like you.

“I’m in this boarding house called Doyle – all the houses are named after authors. Our guy wrote some books that I’ve never heard of about some bloke called Professor Challenger. Anyway, the guys in my house are pretty nice, and the rest of my year seem to be decent enough - I haven’t had much chance to get to know them, which is perhaps for the best.”

His legs were beginning to ache, so he uncurled them from underneath him and sat cross-legged in the grass.

“I’m in the rugby team. The first team, so that’s pretty good… I’m also in the Combined Cadet Force, which is great… Erm, that’s pretty much it. Jesus, it sounds like nothing's been happening, but I've been so busy you wouldn't even believe, but I can't think of anything interesting to say.”

John had to stop himself from tearing at the grass at his feet, an old habit from childhood.

“Mum got me a new coat for my birthday, the one I’m wearing right now, and Harry got me a lab coat, and you won’t believe this, but she’s sewn Dr. John H Watson into the chest and it’s just the sweetest thing, dad. She’s growing up so fast. It’s like watching one of those Attenborough documentaries when they speed up a plant growing up through the soil, so it looks all jerky and alien… I’m not sure I like it.”

John’s phone vibrated in his coat pocket. He pulled it out and sighed at the name on the screen.

I appreciate the sentiment of it, John, but it would have been simpler for you to have simply texted me rather than leave a note. This is the 21st century after all.

“I’m in a room with this guy called Sherlock – he’s the one who just texted me, sorry about that.” He put his phone away again. “I didn’t give him my number. He just sort of acquired it. But that’s not weird, not by his standards. He does this thing where he can look at you and then tell you your life story like you just wrote it out for him. He calls it ‘the science of deduction’, and it’s brilliant. Like, I didn’t say a word about you to anyone, but he knew straight off. I think he’s going to be very famous.”

His phone buzzed again.

If it would mean anything to you, please convey my best wishes to the memory of your father.

And again, a split second later:

Even though he is quite dead and therefore quite unable to hear you.

John laughed drily.

“See that? He knew I’d be talking to you. He, uh, says hello, by the way. And so does my friend Mike.”

John tailed off as he noticed Harry and his mum coming towards him.

“Looks like I’ve got to go now, dad. Talk again soon. I love you,”

He hated saying those words to that cold stone, because sometimes he’d catch himself hearing a reply.

“Ready?” Mrs Watson asked. John nodded and got up. They each touched the gravestone as they passed it, and walked out of the graveyard, leaving the corpses to their slumbers.

John’s phone vibrated again.

Happy birthday.

Chapter Text

John: What should I get my sister for her birthday?

John recognised that asking Sherlock Holmes for gift advice was probably the worst idea he’d had all week, but he was at a total and utter loss. The reply lit up his phone mere seconds after John had pressed send – luckily for him, his roommate was nefariously fast at texting.

Sherlock: Why are you asking me?

John: Trust me, you’re my last resort.

He’d asked Mike (‘I don’t know, girl things? I’ve got three kid brothers, mate, don’t ask me’), Claus (‘Jagermeister’), Seb (‘This isn’t the time, keep marching’), Molly (‘Make her something, she’d really appreciate that’) and even Lestrade (‘Not my division, Doc, go do your homework or something’), but all to no avail.

Sherlock: Charming. I’m busy.

Sherlock had gone out about an hour ago, muttering something about road-kill and litter distribution on country lanes.  John had gone downstairs into the common room and had found Mike and some of his friends from Pullman and a couple of girls from Shelley house yelling at the television while Mike and a boy with a lilting accent and a copious amount of freckles battled it out over a game of Mario Kart on the house’s old and much-abused Wii.

John: Charming yourself! What are you even doing anyway?

Sherlock: Currently, I am crouching in a hedge having been chased across a field by an irate farmer and his two overweight Jack Russell Terriers.

Sherlock: It’s rather cold.

John couldn’t help giggling.

“What’s so funny?” yelled Mike, as a red shell rammed into his bike. “I’m going to beat this punk’s sorry arse, you wait!”

Freckles scoffed. “In your dreams!”

“Nah, it’s not that,” John explained. “Sherlock just got chased across a field by a farmer and he’s hiding in a bush,”

John: Why? :D

“Sherlock Holmes?” a girl with intensely curly hair asked from the other sofa.

“Yeah,” replied John, a little apprehensive of why she was asking.

Sherlock: Never use that face again. Please. It physically pains me.

“Why’s he texting you?”

“He’s my roommate,” John answered cautiously. “Why’d you ask?”

John: :DDDDDDDD

“Well he doesn’t have any friends, so…” Mike looked over his shoulder at Curly and she trailed off.

John was distracted from the slightly sour turn the conversation had taken by his phone buzzing again.

Sherlock: Oh dear, it has started to rain.

John: How far away from school are you?? It’s fine here

He looked up at the feeling of eyes on his skin. Curly was scrutinising him with a mixture of suspicion and confusion on her face.

“You know he’s a psychopath, right?”

“Sally,” cautioned Mike, in between muttering obscenities under his breath and trying to jog Freckles’ arms with his elbow.

“What do you mean?” asked John.

“Leave it, John,” advised Mike.

“No, go on,” John insisted, feeling his core warming unpleasantly under his jumper.

There was an uncomfortable pause, a hole in the noise of the yells of encouragement from those on the sofas to Mike and Freckles and the heavens opening with a rumble of thunder that rattled the old windows in their frames.

John: I stand corrected…

“What? He is,” Sally was saying defensively. “He’s a psychopath and a freak.”

“Right, sure,” said John.

Sally leaned forward.

“He’s done his little party trick on you, hasn’t he? He’s spilled all your little secrets and spread all your dirty gossip, right?”

John didn’t respond, but Sally went on regardless. “Then you’ve seen how he doesn’t care about anyone other than himself, how he’d rather show off than have friends.”

“Don’t forget how he uses people,” her friend added.

“And that,” Sally agreed. “John, he enjoys seeing people upset, or angry, or embarrassed. That’s why he does it. He gets off on it. And the more people hate him, the more he gets off. It’s some extreme superiority complex and it’s weird. If that isn’t a psychopath in the making, I don’t know what is.”

Sherlock: I am on my way back to Doyle. What does your sister want for her birthday and when is it?

John shook his head. Sally was wrong.

It had been almost four weeks now since John had first set foot in room twenty-one, and never had the skin-crawling cliché ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ been truer.

It was difficult to see at first, but John had quickly come to realise that Sherlock Holmes was a fake. He put on a front and met the world with a quiet anger. He, or the version of himself that he allowed people to see, was cold, haughty - emotionless, even. That front got him shunned and picked on and thrown out of classes. It got him exiled to attics and abandoned amongst chimney stacks. But once John had acknowledged the presence of Sherlock’s suit of armour, he’d begun to glimpse flashes of the flesh beneath.

The first time he’d seen it was when John was patching up Sherlock’s wounds after his first run-in with Anderson of the year, though he hadn’t realised it at the time. Then again in the image seared into his grey matter of Sherlock lying motionless on the rooftop. Then again in the pixels arranged into two words read as he walked away from his father’s graveside. And again, when he had woken up one night after a nightmare and noticed a smear of toothpaste on his roommate’s nose. And again, listening to him playing a wrong note on the violin in the small hours. And again, and again, and again. Over and over, John had witnessed the cracks in Sherlock’s wall and over and over he had wondered why others were so blind.

“What have you got against him? What did he do to you?” he asked, trying to gently turn the conversation away from Holmes-bashing, which John was discovering to be a very popular topic among the pupils of St Bart’s.

John: Black stilettos, but that’s completely impossible, I don't have the cash for the sort of brand she'd want :/ it’s a week and a half away

“Nothing,” insisted Sally, and while Sherlock had yet to teach John his mind-reading tricks, he could still spot a liar. “I’m only trying to help you out, that’s all.”

Sherlock: Again with the faces, John?

“Well, thanks, but no thanks,” John said shortly, not wanting to get into an argument. “I’m fine.”

Sherlock: And perhaps it wouldn’t be COMPLETELY impossible...

“Your funeral, mate,” Sally conceded. She exchanged looks with her friend, and they both looked back at John like he was some anomaly in their system. He held the eye contact for a beat before replying to Sherlock.

John: What do you mean?

A tremendous roar erupted from those spectating on the sofas, and John looked up to see Freckles’ character crossing the finish line in second place, with Mike’s following in seventh. John laughed at the strange situation of a bunch of teenage boys being so competitive over a crappy Wii game - most of the other houses John had visited had Xboxes, but Lestrade had obviously spent the house funds on something else – his divorce, according to Sherlock.

Sherlock: We can discuss this when I return to house; my phone is going to short-circuit if it is exposed to much more rain. I’ll be there in roughly forty minutes.

Forty minutes? That meant Sherlock was about, what, three miles from school, and that also meant that John either had to endure forty more minutes of Mike’s friends.

Or not.

John quietly got up from the sofa and had turned to leave when Mike called out.

“Hey, John! Where are you going?”

John cursed Mike silently and viciously before turning around. “I’m just-”

“No, you’re not, it’s your go now,” Mike beamed at him, holding out the remote. “Winner stays on, so you’re against Charlie.”

Freckles – Charlie – turned to John and raised an eyebrow in challenge, and John realised he was cornered. He took the remote from Mike and sat down heavily next to his opponent in front of the telly, crossing his legs.

“Right, Johnny boy,” Charlie grinned at him. “You man enough for Rainbow Road?”

***

Forty minutes later, John was still sitting on the thin carpet, twisting the remote wildly in his hands, more focused than he would have liked to admit. Against all odds, he had beaten Charlie, and Sally’s friend Nat, but was now in the process of losing to Seb, who had tipped up at the invitation of Eric, who had also joined the noisy, whooping crowd on the sofas.

John grunted in frustration as his character was zapped by lightning and crawled down the home straight in his now-tiny car.

Seb laughed as he crossed the finish. “Fifth place is still respectable,” he said to John. “…ish,”

“Shut up, Seb,” chuckled John as he finally passed the finish line.

“That was appalling, John,” a familiar baritone tutted, making everyone jump. John turned around and was presented with the sight of a rain-drenched Sherlock standing in the doorway, his hair stuck to his forehead and dripping onto the already water-logged shoulders of his coat.

John laughed, and Sherlock’s expression dropped.

“What?”

“You looked like a drowned rat,” John giggled, getting up. Sherlock opened his mouth to reply, but Sally interrupted.

“Well, if it isn’t Sherlock Holmes,” she remarked, drawing out his name as if it were a particularly disgusting fungal infection.

“How lovely to see you again, Sally,” he said, his smile icy. “How’s Anderson?”

Sally cocked her head and pursed her lips.

“I-”

“John,” Sherlock interjected, cutting off Sally’s retort. “I believe we had something to discuss.”

With that, he turned on his heels and strode out of the common room, leaving behind the smell of wet fabric.

“Uh,” faltered John. “Right,”

He walked hastily out of the room, feeling eyes following him. Sherlock was already halfway up the stairs when John reached their foot.

“Oi!” he called up. “Damn him and his legs,” he muttered when he got no response, bounding up the stairs two at a time to catch up with his wayward roommate.

Oi!” he repeated. “You didn’t answer my question!”

“And what question would that be?” Sherlock called over his shoulder as he turned the corner and went through the door.

“Why-” the door shut in John’s face. He pulled it open and started again. “Why were you chased by a farmer?”

“He said I was trespassing or something,” Sherlock said airily, disappearing inside room twenty-one, leaving John to half-jog the last few metres.

“God fucking damn it, man,” John exclaimed once he was inside and was getting his breath back. Sherlock took off his soaked coat and put it over the radiator. “Do you ever walk at a normal pace?”

“We don’t have time for that.”

“Please at least try to remember that some of us aren’t blessed with legs like telegraph poles,” John said. “Wait, enough time for what?”

“Your sister’s birthday present,” Sherlock said absently, rifling through the debris on his desk, looking for something.

“Sorry?”

Sherlock found what he was looking for and pocketed it. “I’ll explain on the way,” he said, opening up John’s wardrobe.

“On the way to wha- hey!” Sherlock yanked a jacket off its hanger and thrust it at John.

“Put this on,” he instructed, before reaching into John’s sports bag and chucking John a pair of trainers. “These too.”

He moved to John’s desk and pulled out the drawers, rummaging through each one. John pulled the jacket on and shoved his feet into the shoes.

“Jesus, Sherlock, what’re you looking for?” he asked, closing the wardrobe door.

“Umbrella,” Sherlock replied. John unzipped his backpack that was hanging on a bedpost, brought out a small, black umbrella and tapped Sherlock with it.

“Don’t you have one?”

“God, no,” Sherlock took it and put the strap over his wrist. “They remind me of my brother.”

He was at the window in two strides and pushed it up. Without a pause for thought, he climbed on top of the fridge, crouched on the window sill, and leapt out into the air. He caught the branch of the old oak and swung himself up, before shifting around and looking expectantly at John.

“Come on, John, we don’t have all day,” he announced impatiently.

“You’re kidding,”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows. John came to the terrifying realisation that he was, by no means, in any way, shape, or form, kidding.

He drew in a breath and, wondering what the hell he’d got himself into, clambered up onto the fridge. He shifted forward very carefully until his toes were just over the edge.

“Hurry, John,” Sherlock called.

“Alright, give me a minute,” John replied. He exhaled slowly, and ducked his head under the window, not liking where his centre of gravity was pulling him.

“We don’t have a minute,” Sherlock said urgently. John sat down on the outer window sill, legs dangling down the side of the house.

“What the hell are you on about?”

Just then, all the lights in the school went out, plunging the campus into darkness.

“Come on, John, hurry up!”

“Okay,” John said to himself, nauseatingly aware of the two storey drop looming below him. The rain beat down on him, dripping into his eyes and making the tree even harder to see as his eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden darkness. He knew that the branch was only about two feet from the window, but it suddenly seemed as if the Grand Canyon lay between the bricks and wood.

Fuck it,he thought, and launched himself in the direction of the branch, trying not to think about the air rushing beneath him, and latched onto it, not caring how undignified he looked, with both arms and one leg hugging the swaying branch tight.

Cold hands caught his other leg in a vice-like grip and hauled him up until he was lying on his stomach on the branch.

 “John, we have to go.”

John curled his legs under the branch and shakily sat up. “Yeah,” he breathed. “Okay,”

The lowest branch was a good two metres from the ground, so Sherlock swung from it with his hands before dropping silently. John did the same and stumbled a bit on the landing, but as long as all of his bones were still intact, he didn’t care how much like a sack of potatoes he looked next to his ninja of a roommate.

“What-” John began, but got no further, as Sherlock put a finger to his lips and ran. John rolled his eyes and followed suit.

He caught up with Sherlock and fell into step beside him, their breathing falling into a shared rhythm beat out by the pounding of their feet on the concrete.

“We have about ten minutes, maximum,” Sherlock said quietly, as he turned them off the road and down a hill, across a field and into the woods, their running slowing to a more comfortable jog when they were under the cover of the trees.

“We have to go this way to avoid being seen by the teachers who will be trying to rectify the power cut,” he explained.

“How did you even do that?” John asked. “That was you, wasn’t it?”

Sherlock laughed, something which didn’t happen very often. “Bribery,” he admitted. “One particular apprentice groundskeeper is astonishingly easy to corrupt.”

“So, what exactly are we doing running through the woods at night, having caused a school-wide power outage?” asked John, trying not to slip on the wet leaves underfoot.

“You said your sister wants high heels for her birthday, yes?”

“Stilettos, yeah,”

“So she’s going to get them.” Sherlock concluded.

“What?” John asked, still confused. “We’re not going to steal someone’s shoes, are we?” he exclaimed.

“Don’t be obtuse, John,” Sherlock huffed. “I believe it is said that gifts are all the more appreciated if hand-made, and you are very good at art, and painting especially is one of your fortes,”

“No, I-”

“Shut up, John, don’t be modest,” Sherlock snapped. “Therefore, you are going to create a piece of art that centres around these coveted heels – a nice twist, don’t you think?”

“But,” John said, thinking. “I don’t have any equipment, I’ve only got my sketchpad and…” Sherlock smiled at him as the realisation hit him. “But that’s-”

Sherlock shushed him as they turned out of the fringe of the woods and picked up the pace. They approached the art block from behind, and stopped for a moment against the wall.

“John,” Sherlock turned to him. “Nobody will be in there; it’s a Saturday night. The security cameras have been turned off with the rest of the power – I made certain of that. The only thing we have to worry about is time. For safety, let’s say that we have to be back in our room in five minutes – that leaves a margin of about two, three minutes for errors - which will not occur, understand?”

John sniggered, a combination of adrenaline and the fact that Sherlock was acting like they were about to rob a bank. Sherlock, however, looked him dead in the eyes until John’s nervous smile faded from his face.

“Sure,” he agreed hastily. Sherlock nodded and they began to move quickly around the side of the building.

When they got to the front door, Sherlock pulled out the thing he’d pocketed earlier and drew out of it two slender pieces of metal. He bent over the lock and John just caught a quiet clicking that was drowned under the drumming of the rain on the nearby cars.

Finally, Sherlock straightened up and pushed open the door. They slipped inside and Sherlock tugged John away from the windows.

“Have you been in here before?” Sherlock asked.

“Once, with Molly,” John whispered.

“Do you know where the supply closet is?”

“I think so,”

Sherlock was looking at him as if he was waiting for something.

“Well?”

“Oh! It’s upstairs,” John led Sherlock up the stone steps and into a corridor lined with past GCSE and A-Level pieces. He stopped beside a set of double doors set into the wall. “I’m pretty sure it was here,”

Sherlock pulled out his lock-picks again and got to work. John looked around the corridor.

His eye was caught by a security camera nestled in the corner of the ceiling, and his heart jolted. Even though he knew it was off – there was no red light blinking at him and Sherlock seemed relaxed enough – he was finding it hard to look away from the camera, as if, if he did, it would suddenly leap back to life and it would all be over.

There was a resolute-sounding click and Sherlock pulled open the doors.

“Well remembered, John,” he praised, before stepping aside. “Take your pick.”

John moved into the cupboard that was more of a small room than a storage space. It was remarkably well organised, thank God. There were shelves upon shelves of paints and dyes alone, and canvases were stacked on one another along one wall, along with easels, fabrics, clay, paper, work books, and all the sharp instruments John could ever imagine, and even some that he couldn’t. He already had a vague idea of what he’d paint Harry – and it was going to be a painting, he didn’t have enough time for anything more elaborate – so, conscious of the seconds ticking away on Sherlock’s expensive watch, he quickly selected what he’d need and stepped out.

“Done?” Sherlock asked.

“Yep,” John agreed, happy now that he had stolen art supplies in his arms.

“We’re going to have to run,” Sherlock explained as they raced down the stairs, John struggling not to drop everything. Sherlock whipped around at the sound of a paint brush clattering against the tiles.

“Oh, for-” he began, doubling back and taking the canvas from John. “Put as many things as you can in your pockets,” he advised, unfurling the umbrella. John did as he said. “We have two minutes. Ready?”

***

Sherlock and John fell through their window into the still-darkened house one hundred and eighteen seconds later – or rather, John fell through the window, having been pushed by Sherlock, and Sherlock himself threw the stolen canvas and the soaked umbrella through the window and leapt inside after them. He shut the window, and when he turned around again, John was doubled over in the centre of the room.

“John?” He saw that the boy was shaking. “Are you hurt?”

John straightened up and his face was so laced with disbelieving joy that Sherlock felt the corners of his mouth pulling in relieved response. John was laughing silently, faced florid and screwed up with the effort after having run so far so fast, and scrambling up the old oak like there were rabid dogs at their heels.

Sherlock was rather out of breath himself, and he made a mental note to focus more on prolonged sprints rather than stamina the next time he went swimming. He hadn’t counted on John being so fast, and had spent most of the aforementioned one hundred and eighteen seconds trying to remain level with his short roommate. Sherlock wiped the few remaining rain droplets from the canvas and gave it to John.

“That was…” John began between heavy breaths and half-laughs. “The craziest thing… I’ve ever done,” he beamed, and Sherlock chuckled softly, almost cross at his own laughter that he recognised as a primitive social mechanism and yet could not, unfortunately, control.

The unwanted endorphins vanished from his bloodstream as he heard the footsteps of… Mike in the corridor outside, approaching their room. Sherlock dropped to his knees and pushed the stolen art supplies that had been abandoned on the floor around John’s legs and under John’s desk, ignoring John’s confused protests. He had just removed his hands from John’s ankles - using which he had maneuvered John backwards to better block the desk from the line of sight of anyone standing in the doorway - as Mike entered the room, carrying a torch.

“Hey-” Mike froze mid-step. “Uh…”

Sherlock inwardly rolled his eyes. Teenage boys have such foul minds. He calmly stood.

“Do you ever knock, Stamford?” Sherlock drawled, trying to eliminate the breathlessness from his voice, which would not have helped the situation at all.

“Well, I, uh, just came to check that you guys are all right,” Mike said, eyes flicking between the pair. “They can’t find the cause of the power cut, but Lestrade says-” he was interrupted by the lights flickering back on, just on time. “Oh! Well, there you go,” Mike exclaimed. “So, I’m just- I’ve got loads of homework to do, so…”

Stamford gave them a tight smile and was so anxious to leave that he walked into the door frame in his haste.

As soon as the door clicked shut, John, who had been standing rigid as a board for the entire encounter, buried head in his hands.

“Oh, God… your face was right in front of my crotch when he came in,” he groaned, then shook his head and laughed in disbelief. “Now he probably thinks we’re secretly fucking or something…” John laughed again and began to retrieve the equipment from where Sherlock had stowed it under his desk.

Sherlock huffed. He perched on the top step of the ladder up to his bed and pulled out his phone. “Better we let him speculate whether we or not we are having sex than whether or not we just stole two hundred pounds worth of art supplies,”

“Mm,” agreed John, then abruptly stopped and turned to Sherlock. “You know, if we’re found out, you’re going to be expelled on the spot,”

“I am aware of that, yes,” agreed Sherlock. He was scrolling through the next day’s weather forecast on his phone, until something collided rather painfully with his forehead and sent him sprawling backwards onto his bed. He located the offending missile – a tube of ‘Cadmium Red’ acrylic paint – and sat up.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“For being a fucking idiot!” John exclaimed.

Sherlock threw the tube of paint back to John, who caught it with one hand and twirled it in his fingers.

“You would get in trouble as well, John, I hope you know that,”

“I’d only have to pay for it all – you, on the other hand-”

“Yes, yes, I know,” interjected Sherlock, trying to rid John’s features of the fiery cocktail of worry and anger that had settled there.

John shook his head again. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful, but you didn’t have to do something so risky for a girl you’ve never met,”

Sherlock laughed shortly. “What’s life without a little risk,” he said. Then, after a moment of thought, “Call it a late birthday present to you.”

He went back to scrolling through the weather – the current disappointing low pressure system was set to stay, it seemed – until the continued sound of John not putting away the equipment had reached a suitable pitch to make him raise his head.

John was looking at him with a strange expression on his face. Sherlock wasn’t sure he could categorise it accurately. It gave Sherlock the supposition that he had done something impressive - but he hadn’t.

He cocked his head in query.

“Christ, Sally was wrong,” John explained.

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to be more specific.”

John raised his eyebrows briefly and pursed his lips. “She said you were a psychopath.”

“Mm, not quite,” he disagreed lightly. “She’s going to have to pay a lot more attention in class if she’s going to pass her psychology module.” Annoyingly, he found himself having to make a conscious effort to meet John’s eyes.

They were searching Sherlock’s for a further explanation, but Sherlock made certain he would not find one.

After a moment, John’s face broke into a smile, then a grin, and he laughed again, turning away and continuing to gather up the equipment.

“I still can’t believe we just did that,” he mused. “Christ,”

Sherlock’s phone lit up with a text.

VT: Happy, your highness?

Sherlock: That was very well executed. Now stop texting me.

VT: Bossy, are we? I’ll be expecting you with your half of the deal – don’t forget now. I am very much looking forward to it ;)

Sherlock almost snorted. Victor Trevor was a slimy, wholly unpleasant creature, but was in a very strategic position as the head groundskeeper’s son. Therefore, somewhat regrettably, it was in Sherlock’s interests to keep his word and fulfil the transaction. And besides, the more data the better.

Sherlock didn’t reply to the text – Victor wasn’t worth the energy – but instead, put his phone away and lay back on his bed, John’s chatter about the painting forming a soft background to his thoughts.

Chapter Text

And, thus, John found himself settling into a rhythm.

It had only taken robbery to instigate it, but as each day passed, John could feel himself becoming a little more comfortable with life in that strange place.

Mike had been right, all those weeks ago: John now knew the school like the back of his hand. Not only the layout, but its nonsensical traditions, routines, timings, cliques, slang, loopholes, teachers; the general ebb and flow of St. Bart’s becoming not-unpleasant white noise humming in his ears.

He called home every Sunday, had been promoted in army, was just about staying on top of work, came back from every rugby session sweaty and aching, his mum had a new job, and he had even helped his roommate with a few of his hare-brained experiments a few times. Harry had loved the painting, which had turned out to be a vivid pop-art style piece featuring a black stiletto on a light blue background dotted with red, and John had to admit that it had looked rather striking in the picture she had texted him of it mounted on the wall above her bed. The weather was dropping by degrees each day and the half-term holiday was just around the corner.

And, strangely, against all odds, Sherlock was increasingly at his side.

***

It was a handful of days into October, and John had coaxed and cajoled and pleaded with Sherlock for about seventy-two hours straight to get him to simply go to a meal. Finally, on one crisp Tuesday, his stubborn roommate gave in to the hunger that was no doubt gnawing at his insides and was now trailing John around the serving area of the dining hall.

He was talking about a lady called Mrs Turner and something to do with her necklace, and John wasn’t paying any attention. He was more concerned with negotiating the swarms of hungry students that were creating a veritable gridlock inside the hall. He politely pushed through the crowd forming around the pasta bar, Sherlock at his heels, still rambling on.

“You know I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” John said over his shoulder. It was partly true; the acoustics of the room made conversation very difficult when seven hundred other people were trying to talk over one another. That, and the fact that he hadn’t slept very well the night before and so was finding it hard to muster up any interest for anything that didn’t involve his bed.

Sherlock said something in reply, but he was cut off by a pack of teachers pushing their way between them. John turned around and asked Sherlock what he’d said, but the taller boy didn’t reply for a moment. John huffed and waited, watching Sherlock’s eyes flicker over the teachers with that unnerving intensity he had, deducing.

Once the teachers had passed, Sherlock made his way over to John, a smirk pulling at his mouth.

“That art teacher had sex with those two history teachers last night,” he proclaimed.

John laughed incredulously. “No way!” he exclaimed. “Oh my god,”

“It was disappointing to say the least,” Sherlock continued, as John spotted an opening in the crowd and joined the back of the queue for fish and chips. “The history teachers were more interested in each other than the art teacher. It was her idea, yet she left halfway through.”

John laughed. “How do you know?”

“Look, John,” Sherlock urged, directing John’s gaze to the teachers’ bench. “See how the ginger and the balding history teachers keep sneaking glances at each other, and the way the art teacher-”

“Which one? There are two.”

“The one with the big nose. The way she keeps touching the ginger one, but he keeps shaking her off, and look – just above the balding history teacher’s collar?”

John shuffled along in the queue, trying to see above the sea of bobbing heads.

“Oh, the hickey, I see it,”

“He’s tried to cover it up by wearing a higher collar than usual, see how he keeps adjusting it, and how the ginger one keeps looking at it?”

John hummed an agreement and loaded his plate with battered cod, chips and peas, and was about to move away when he remembered that Sherlock hadn’t eaten in days, and the boy never ate his own food on the rare occasion that he did come to a meal, preferring to steal John’s, and so John piled on another scoop of chips for good measure.

John joined the queue for the ketchup, Sherlock behind, quiet now. His eyes were dancing around the room, and John wondered what it must be like in his head, under a constant and unending barrage of information, unable to stop thinking, and he wondered if that was why Sherlock had the sleeping patterns of an insomniac, his brain refusing to allow him even a second of rest.

His thoughts were interrupted by Anderson joining the queue behind Sherlock, a couple of his friends behind him, sniggering. John immediately tensed up, but Sherlock seemed to not have noticed his arrival.

“Alright, Sherly?” Anderson began.

Sherlock very slowly shifted his gaze from a spot in the middle distance to Anderson’s face. He looked him up and down and smirked. “Anderson,” he drawled. “We meet again.”

“You know, I think you’re checking me out when you look at me like that, Sherly,” Anderson said. John silently begged Sherlock not to rise to the bait.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Sherlock replied. “So, what makes you prefer Herbal Essences to Lynx - or did your mum send you your sister’s shampoo by mistake?”

Anderson turned bright red, and his friends stopped snickering. Sherlock turned back to John with a smug grin on his face.

“The queue has moved along, John,” he said, and John sighed and shuffled up.

“Nice seeing you, Sherlock, John,” Anderson managed, face friendly, eyes not. He raised a hand and went to slap Sherlock on the back – a benign gesture that immediately made John suspicious.

His suspicions were confirmed when, as hand collided with blazer, there was an unmistakable squishing sound. Anderson’s friends erupted into guffaws again, as Anderson removed his hand to reveal a squashed tomato now stuck to the fabric, seeds and juice dripping pitifully down Sherlock’s back.

John abandoned his tray and made to go after Anderson and punch his head in until it was reduced to the same state as the tomato, but was restrained by Sherlock’s hand on his arm.

Sherlock didn’t say anything, and John felt the anger dissipating. Anderson had disappeared into the crowd now anyway. Sherlock took off his blazer and went back to his monologue about that Mrs Turner while brushing off the remains of the tomato, seemingly unshaken, but John couldn’t mistake a certain darkness that had come over his face.

John got the ketchup and two biscuits, and scouted the room for a place to sit. He found one, the very end of a bench near the entrance, and sat down while Sherlock got the drinks – another routine they’d fallen into in recent weeks.

John got started on his fish while Sherlock astutely did not eat anything.

“Sherlock, the whole reason you’re here is so that you eat,” John reminded him after a couple of mouthfuls.

“The brain is what matters, everything else is-”

“Transport, yes, I know,” John finished wearily, “but the brain needs fuel too – I thought you’d know that, being such a child genius and all.”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow.

John sighed. “It has taken me three days to get you here, a personal best for me, so the least you can do is humour me. Please?”

Sherlock turned his head, all of a sudden fascinated by the wall.

Well. John thought. Desperate times.

John lashed out and caught one of Sherlock’s hands where it was resting on the table and, against Sherlock’s struggles and fully aware that he was attracting looks from the girls next to them, prised his bony fingers open and deposited a forkful of chips in his fist before curling it closed again. The wordless struggle intensified as John forced Sherlock to raise the fork to his mouth – trying to avoid impaling his eye on the tongs – he’d tried so many methods in the past to get the git to eat, this one had to work – if only he could get him to inhale a lungful of food, then surely his body would override his mind’s idiotic starvation protocol – and John was now out of his seat and leaning across the table, blazer dangerously close to dangling in ketchup. There, they reached a stalemate, Sherlock’s mouth tightly closed, and pushing back against John with all his scrawny strength.

“Christ, John – stop – this is ridiculous – you’re embarrassing yourself - “ Sherlock muttered through gritted teeth. The girls next to them had all stopped eating and were staring at them with unabashed looks of horror and amusement.

“I’ll stop if you eat,” John replied, forcing the chip-laden fork closer still to Sherlock’s mouth.

They stayed like that for a few moments more, more and more people turning to gawp at the source of the commotion.

“Fine!” Sherlock hissed, and John released his hand and sat back down. John watched as Sherlock quickly dipped the chips in ketchup and raised them to his mouth. He narrowed his eyes and looked pointedly at John before opening his mouth and eating. John smiled and Sherlock gave him his fork back.

“Thank you, Sherlock,” John said, and turned around at the sound of clapping coming from the girls sitting next to them. It was Sarah, a couple of people down, mock-applauding him. Her friends were laughing, and a couple even jokingly joined in. What John really wanted to do at that moment was crawl under the table – that whole fiasco had been necessary but not the most dignified of actions, and the beautiful Sarah had seen it all – but he violently fought the blush he could feel beginning under his collar and mock-bowed, as well as he could sitting down.

“Thank you, thank you very much,” he quipped, grinning. The clapping died down and John turned back to his lunch. Sherlock scowled at him, but went on to steal most of John’s chips and even half a biscuit before the meal was done.

***

On the walk back from lunch, Sherlock was still talking about that Turner woman.

“Explain to me again what the fuck you’ve been banging on about for the past two hours?” John interrupted.

“Do you listen to a word I say?” Sherlock replied, but John knew that the bastard loved the sound of his own voice so much that he wouldn’t mind repeating himself at all. “Mrs Turner, the woman who lives down the road.”

“I’m still lost.”

“The woman who always wears that hideous necklace, the gold one with too many pendants.” Sherlock elaborated, as if that explained everything.

“Er…” John racked his brains for any memory of such a person. “Oh! You mean married to Mr Turner the geography teacher, mother of Lottie Turner who does army with me, works in the tuck shop Mrs Turner?”

“Yes, John - which other Mrs Turner could I have meant?”

“Whatever, you snarky tit; go on,”

“She is no longer wearing her necklace.” Sherlock concluded dramatically.

“And?” John punched in the code to Doyle and the two entered the house.

Sherlock looked at John with disbelief. “Why, John, why is she not wearing her disgusting necklace anymore, that is the question!”

John shrugged. “Maybe she lost it,” he proffered.

“That much is obvious,” mused Sherlock, for once keeping pace with John as they went up the stairs. “If you bothered to check the noticeboards every once in a while, you would know that it’s been missing for a week now and she is very much distraught.”

“So she’s lost it, case closed, right? Why are you interested?” John asked.

“She hasn’t misplaced it at all, John, that’s the mysterious thing. She was working here when I first came to this school, and I have never seen her without that necklace. For some reason, it must carry a great deal of sentiment for her, and she stopped wearing it in the middle of last week. A woman like her, so set in her dull routines as she is, would not simply lose track of something so precious to her overnight.”

“So someone took it, maybe?”

“Yes, but why would anyone want a necklace so resplendently ugly?” Sherlock said impatiently.

John shrugged, holding the door open for Sherlock. “I actually think it’s quite nice,”

“That’s because you have no taste.” Sherlock dismissed.

John rolled his eyes. “Well, perhaps to prove a point, then?”

“Oh, absolutely, I came to that conclusion an hour ago – but what point? What is the motive?”

John had no answer, and they entered their room in a comfortable silence, Sherlock deep in thought. John kicked off his shoes and began changing into his Army uniform, which was a little tricky, seeing as Sherlock was pacing again and John had to keep moving out of the way. Blazer off, school trousers off, camo trousers on, jumper off, shirt off, brown undershirt on, camo jacket on, socks off, thicker socks on, one boot, second boo-

“John!” Sherlock exclaimed.

“Mmm?” John looked up from tying his laces.

“You said that Lottie Turner is in your CCF section, yes?”

“Yeah… why?” Sherlock looked as if a great idea had struck him.

“Ask her about her mother’s necklace!”

The animosity that had overtaken Sherlock’s features was almost shocking enough to make John agree to his proposition on the spot.

“I’m not interrogating someone for you, Sherlock.” He went back to his boot.

John could practically hear Sherlock’s eye-roll as he knelt down so that he was in John’s line of vision. “It’s not an interrogation, that’s ludicrous-“

John stood up, drawing another exasperated exhalation form Sherlock, who stood too.

“I’ll be watching from a discreet distance,” he bargained. John laughed shortly.

“Fine, whatever you say,”

“Thank you, John,” Sherlock looked genuinely pleased, and John didn’t really mind playing along, as long as it kept him from sinking into one of his moods. He didn’t really have the energy to deal with that today.

***

“Hurry up! You’re late!”

John broke into a run as the sergeant shouted another warning at him, slotting into the blank file at the back of his squad. He felt the eyes of the entire parade following him, and a particularly disappointed look from Seb Moran where he stood in front of his section. He breathed a quick “Hi,” to Lottie, who, in an uncanny turn of luck, was standing on his right, at ease.

As the NCOs made various tweaks to their respective platoons, John risked a glance over his shoulder to where Sherlock had told him he would be observing from, a conveniently leafy oak around ten metres from the car park that the school used as a parade ground once a week, directly behind the students.

“Parade!” John snapped his head back around and braced as the commanding officer shouted the order. “Parade… ‘shun!” The perfectly choreographed stamp of heavy boots on the harsh concrete was one of the most satisfying sounds John could think of at that moment, perhaps equal with the rhythm of heavy boots marching in time, but that was to be pondered upon at another time.

Quite a bit more shouting later, the parade relaxed into standing easy, and awaited instruction. John took this moment of rest to talk to Lottie.

He turned to her, but what he was about to say evaporated from his mind as he saw a purple bruise on her cheek, badly disguised with makeup.

“Oh my God, what happened, Lottie?” he asked, voice low so as not to make her uncomfortable.

She looked at him, jutting her chin out slightly, defensive.

“I got hit in the face with a hockey ball,”

“Christ… when?”

“Yesterday,” she replied, uncertain of why he was asking.

“You should put some ice on it; it’ll make it go down a lot,”

“Yeah,” she said, a look of slight confusion passing over her face. “I will, thanks,”

John closed his eyes momentarily as she looked away, feeling pre-emptively apologetic, because he knew Sherlock was watching, and he had to keep the conversation going, despite never having spoken to her before today.

“Can’t believe I was late,” he began, a lame way of starting an ‘interrogation’, his mind searching for something to say. Sherlock had given no specifics – ‘Just, I don’t know, talk to her, you talk to people, you’re good at that,’ being his only advice. “So embarrassing,”

She hummed something that could only be described as the epitome of disinterested. John tried again.

“You know Seb’s trying to apply for head of CCF,” he said, trying to catch her eye.

“Really?” she said absently.

“Yeah,” Christ, this is awkward. “So, what subjects do you take?”

“French, economics and geography,” she said, still not looking at him.

“Oh yeah, ‘cause your dad’s a geography teacher, isn’t he,” he mused. “Must run in the family,”

“Jesus, no,” she dismissed. “I hate it,”

“Why’d you do it, then?” John asked, seemingly having found a subject to pursue.

“He basically made me.”

“Oh, I had that with my mum,” John lied. “She wanted me to take French, but I was like-“

“John, why are you talking to me?”

He was thrown. “What? I’m just making conversation-“

“John, I, uh, I’ve got a girlfriend.”

Bugger, this was not how this was supposed to go. “No, I - ”

“And no, you can’t watch.” She gave him a smile like lead fumes and turned away.

“No, Lottie, shit, honestly, I wasn’t-“ he laughed bitterly. Sherlock was never going to let him forget this. “Anyway, I wouldn’t want to. My sister, er, swings that way too, so that would be weird as fuck if I wanted to, you know…”

She turned back to him, gaze hard and scrutinising. John kept smiling in what he hoped was a non-threatening way.

Nothing. He needed to salvage this. “We’re having bets at home, me and my mum, on when she’s going to ask her best friend out.” Another lie, but never mind. “I say by Christmas, she says New Year’s,”

There was no change on the girl’s face. John’s smile faded. This was going nowhere.

“Sorry. I’ll shut up now.” He turned away, shifting a little, shoulder beginning to protest a little at keeping his hands behind him for so long.

“Are you being serious?”

John turned back. Lottie’s eyes had softened a little, something hopeful on her face.

“Yeah, of course,” he smiled.

Her face collapsed into a relieved, tentative smile. “Ugh, sorry for that,”

“It’s fine, don’t worry.”

“It’s just, everyone knows me as the school lesbian, you know, and a lot of guys are really creepy about it.”

“I understand, and I honestly wasn’t hitting on you, by the way.”

They both laughed, then Lottie became serious again. “Can I ask you something maybe a bit personal?”

“Sure.”

“So, um, how did your sister, like, come out?” Her voice was quiet and confidential. “It’s just, I haven’t yet to my parents. Precarious situation, seeing as everyone my dad teaches knows, but he doesn't. I know I need to sometime soon but I’m kind of scared to.”

“Oh, well, it was during an argument, actually. Quite funny, looking back, but at the time, not so much. She and my mum were yelling at each other about something, and I guess it just slipped out, but I wouldn’t try her method,” he laughed. “Not really the best way to do it. And don’t be nervous, your dad seems like a decent guy, so I’m willing to bet they’ll love you just the same.”

“It’s not my dad I’m worried about… my mum sort of walked in on me and my girlfriend, and we weren’t even doing anything, just holding hands, and, well, she – and I told her that it was nothing like that, we’re just friends, but she - ”

“Platoon! Platoon… ‘shun!”

***

Sherlock watched through the leaves as John and the rest of his section came to attention, bodies rigid and proud. At another command from the blond boy - Moran, he reminded himself - in front of them, they turned as one with a great commotion, and at another shout, moved off, limbs swinging like pendulums, perfectly in unison. Sherlock could see why John was attracted to the CCF; there had been so much chaos in his life, and the armed forces were the polar opposite - by their very nature ordered, practical, uniformity and conformity in the extreme, the perfect counterbalance.

He had barely been able to catch snatches of John and the Turner girl’s conversation, but he had confidence that his phone, placed in John’s chest pocket, having been assured that no diving on the floor with weaponry was to occur today, would have recorded what he’d missed.

***

A couple of hours later, Sherlock was playing around with a few chords on his violin when John returned from Army.

“Ah, John, good, let’s listen to the recording.”

“Hang on a sec,” John chided, unlacing his boots. “Bit eager, are we?”

Sherlock huffed and dutifully waited until John had tugged off his boots with a gratified sigh. He reached into his pocket and drew out Sherlock’s phone, which was taken from his hand as soon as it was in sight.

Sherlock put the phone on his desk and re-wound the recording to the beginning, turning it to full volume and staring intently at the wall while it played, trying to block out the sounds of John getting changed in the background.

He didn’t move until the faint and indistinct shouts of Moran to come to attention and the stamping started, signalling the end of John and Lottie’s conversation.

“I didn’t get another chance to talk to her after that,” John explained. “So, what is your hypothesis, Detective Holmes?”

“Consulting Detective,” Sherlock corrected absent-mindedly, as he paused the recording and spun around to lean backwards against his desk, hands to his lips in that praying way of his. “I don’t have one yet.” He was distracted momentarily by John checking his phone, once, twice, thrice – expecting a text, probably from that Sawyer he appears to be so infatuated with. “Did you see the way Charlotte -”

“Lottie.”

“- flinched when Moran called you to attention? Right at the end of your conversation? And the way she was looked so confronted when you asked her about her bruise? It’s most likely that was – what?”

John had straightened, fingers flying over his phone, a smile growing on his face.

“I’m meeting up with Sarah,” he exclaimed. “Like, meeting up, meeting up, in ten minutes - oh Jesus...”

“Fantastic,” drawled Sherlock.

“What now?” John asked, that ‘seriously, Sherlock?’ look on his face that seemed to come so naturally to him.

Sherlock rolled his eyes. This is more important, he wanted to say, but then John would get annoyed with him. It didn’t matter of course, but John’s co-operation was preferable nonetheless.

John went to his wardrobe, opening it and fussing with his hair in the mirror. Sentiment, Sherlock thought with disdain. No, the curious case of the unsightly necklace was much more interesting.

“It’s a bad idea,” Sherlock mused.

“What, seeing Sarah?”

“Mmm. Boarding school, er, relationships never seem to end well.” Sherlock had seen the results of what the boys of his year had termed ‘serious’ relationships crash headfirst to the ground due to the very nature of the environment they lived in; rumours spreading faster than cholera and hormones running high, undiluted in constant company and a dearth of privacy.

“We’ll see,” said John. “Speaking from experience?”

Sherlock laughed shortly. “No. Girls are not really my area.”

“I know what you mean,” laughed John. “I don’t think anyone fully understands 'em. Almost from another planet, all of them.”

Sherlock marvelled at John's idiocy and waited for the penny to drop.

“… Oh. Right.”

There it is.

“Nah, Sarah’s pretty chilled, you wait and see,” John went back to fidgeting with his appearance in the mirror. Simple as that.

Could have gone worse, Sherlock thought.

***

Time passed. Sherlock couldn’t have said how much time, but John was not in the room when he finally finished having a row with Mycroft down the phone. Imbecile. As he slotted the thing back into his pocket, the case of the Turners flitted into his mind again.

The black eye was obviously the result of a punch, which was obviously the result of something the girl didn’t want to admit, or possibly even acknowledge. How all of this was linked to the necklace he did not know, but Sherlock was coming to think of it as less and less relevant. The topic of John and Charlotte’s conversation ran through his synapses again. He himself had never officially revealed the nature of his own sexuality to his family; he didn’t think it was necessary to do so or any of their business. It was not as if it was going to be acted upon at any point – he had seen what that did to people. It was messy, mind-blunting and ultimately redundant. No. It was better to remain alone, with complete self-sufficiency and control. Too many variables otherwise.

And then it hit him. Like a punch in the head.

***

The time was now. There was a case here, and it needed to be dealt with. Not for the girl’s sake, for his own. There was an itching under his skin as he ran down the stairs, not bothering to move for his housemates as they glared at him as he passed, their calls and taunts not even registering.

The common room. He flung open the door and stopped.

John was standing very close to the girl, Sawyer, Sarah Sawyer. His back was to the door, their faces were close, his hands on her hips. There were two mugs of hot chocolate resting on the countertop next to them. Sherlock could see the girl’s smile drop away as her eyes flicked from John’s to Sherlock in the doorway. After a pause, John caught on and turned around. His face showed recognition, query, then annoyance.

“Domestic abuse,” Sherlock said by way of greeting.

“What?” John let go of Sarah and the irritation was replaced by worry.

“The mother is homophobic, hit the girl when she walked in on her and the girlfriend,” Sherlock elaborated sparingly, aware of Sarah behind John. “Let’s go.”

“Sorry, am I missing something?” Sarah cut in.

“Yes, you are. Good afternoon.” Sherlock made to turn and leave with John in tow, but John caught his arm and spun him around.

“Could I have a word with you?” he said, lips pursed. “Sorry, Sarah, I’ll be just a minute,” he called apologetically over his shoulder as he half-shoved Sherlock out of the room. Sarah threw her hands up in resignation as the door shut on her.

“Do you know this for certain?” John began. Sherlock opened his mouth, but John interrupted. “Actually, scratch that, of course you do. Do we have to do this now?”

“You’re supposed to be the selfless one, John; of course we do,”

John heaved a sigh and went back into the common room, Sherlock behind.

Sarah was leaning against the counter, arms folded across her chest.

John walked up to her and lowered his voice slightly, to something more private and respectful. This was taking too long, they needed to go.

“Sarah, I can’t believe this, but I have to go. Something’s come up, and-“

“Let me come with you.”

“Sorry?”

Sarah shifted her now rather stubborn gaze from John to Sherlock. “If you think that you’re just going to waltz in here and rob me of the most fun I’ve had all year, you couldn’t be more wrong. And besides, this sounds serious, and I want to help.”

John shot a backward glance to Sherlock. “Erm, I don’t know if-“

“We’d love to have you along.” Sherlock interjected.

John gave him a ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ look. Sherlock gave Sarah his best smile. John rolled his eyes.

***

“You’re one hundred percent sure about this?”

The three were walking briskly down the road, having finished updating Sarah about the situation.

Sherlock nodded.

“God… poor Lottie,” Sarah sighed. “What are we going to do about it?”

“Yeah, Sherlock, what are we going to do about it?” John agreed, with an edge of accusation in his tone. Still annoyed at Sherlock’s intervention in his afternoon, no doubt.

“We’re going to get Mrs Turner fired.”

***

“People are going to talk, you know,” John stated, his hand finding Sherlock’s.

“They already do,” Sarah said with a laugh, pulling out her phone. “Okay. Ready?”

“Yes, yes, go on,” Sherlock instructed impatiently.

“All right. Good luck, I guess,” she laughed one last time, then entered the tuck shop. Through the frosted glass windows, the remaining two could make out her form finding a table and sitting, facing the counter.

There was a pause.

“Do people really talk? About…” John held up their intertwined hands.

Sherlock didn’t reply. John took that as a yes.

“All right then. Shall we?”

Sherlock pushed open the door with his free hand, and they went into the small room.

A handful of metal tables were scattered about, hulking vending machines standing sentinel in the corner. A cluster of kids sat around one of the tables, chattering incomprehensibly. The far wall was difficult to see under shelves upon shelves of brightly coloured packaging, a door leading to a storage room set into it. Standing behind the counter was none other than Mrs Turner, hair drawn back in a tight bun, neck bare, bracelets clinking at her wrists. She was preoccupied with the till, and Sherlock slowed John and his pace. John quickly looked around, to see Sarah sitting behind them, her phone pointed in their direction as she pretended to text.

Finally, Mrs Turner looked up. Her eyes caught on their hands, then continued upwards, face darkening a little.

They reached the counter.

Nobody said a word.

“Hi,” John started, the silence growing too thick to leave it longer. “Can I have a coffee, please?” His heart was beating unnecessarily fast. Wimp, he thought to himself. If Sherlock was right, this was going to get ugly. It needed to get ugly.

Mrs Turner nodded once, and just as she turned to go to the machine, John felt Sherlock press himself against his side and add,

“Oh, and one for me too, please.” Mrs Turner whipped her head around. John looked up. Sherlock had his most charming smile on his face, the one that seemed to fool everyone but John. Now he turned those pale eyes on John’s own, the only indication that he was acting, and even that was difficult to spot. John was suddenly aware of just how close together they were when he felt Sherlock’s breath move the air between them as he said,

“You don’t mind paying do you? I think I left my wallet in our room,” Sherlock’s face was all pastel colours, a copy of the softness that reshapes the features of every lover, subtle, but there all the same.

John raced through vague memories of mandatory drama classes of his youth, mainly spent astutely not paying attention, as he let his own face fall into something resembling the carefree look on his roommate’s.

“Fine,” he said, mock-mock-irritated. The hissing of the coffee machine drew both pairs of eyes away from each other. One cup was already filled, the other halfway there. This wasn’t working all too well. No reaction yet. Something more direct needed to be done.

Mrs Turner silently brought the steaming cups over to the till and set them down a little carelessly, coffee slopping over the rims.

“Four pounds,” she grunted. John untangled his fingers from Sherlock’s and sought out the loose change in his pockets. He drew out a handful of coins, and set to counting out what was needed.

As he handed over the money, Sherlock muttered a “Thanks,” to him, and, rather unexpectedly, kissed him on the cheek.

Mrs Turner grabbed the coffee and threw it in the bin. “Get out.”

“Excuse me?” John replied.

“You heard; get out of my shop.”

“Is there a problem?”

“I will not have that kind of behaviour in my shop, now get out!”

The kids behind them fell silent as the shout reverberated around the room. John could feel eyes on his back. Sherlock slotted their hands together again and tugged lightly.

“Let’s go,” he said, feigning obedience.

“Can I at least have my money back?” John asked.

Mrs Turner threw the coins down onto the counter. “Fuck you,” she growled.

Sherlock tugged on his hand again. This time, John complied, and let himself be led out of the building.

As the door swung shut behind them, John let go of Sherlock and ran a hand through his hair.

“Jesus Christ,” he cursed quietly, and shook his head, then laughed briefly and addressed his friend. “Have you ever considered going into acting?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes at him, chewing his lip.

Seconds later, Sarah joined them, eyes wide. “So is this what you two do for fun?”

“Did you get it?” Sherlock asked. “It is all there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it, it’s fine – what now?”

“Now we take it to the head master,” Sherlock declared.

"Wait," John said, tugging Sherlock's arm as he began to stride away. Sherlock turned back, annoyed. "How are we going to make sure Lottie's safe? Just getting Mrs Turner fired won't do anything, Lottie still has to live with the woman, and now she'll be more irate than ever."

Sherlock sighed as if John had said something so painfully obvious it barely warranted a reply. "I know that. I've already told Lestrade about their situation, he's told the pupil welfare people, the police know, Mr Turner intends to leave his wife and take Lottie with him. I'm not stupid, John. I see things through."

John exhaled. "Okay. Good." And then he realised Sherlock had called her Lottie instead of Charlotte, and something about that small loss of formality made John smile.

***

“Wait, wait, wait,” Harry said, breathless from laughter. “Let me get this straight,”

John sighed and shifted where he was leaning against the wall outside his and Sherlock’s room. Harry’s voice came crackling down the phone, saturated with barely-contained laughter.

“You pretended to be gay with your best friend while your maybe-girlfriend filmed it on her phone to get the head to give some woman the sack?”

“Yes.”

John had sent his mum and sister the link to the website of the local newspaper which had very briefly documented the story in the edition published earlier that day. It was now five days after the event – needless to say, the head master had been swift in the discreet sacking of Mrs Turner. Lottie was now making plans to move to a new school after half term, and it had taken John quite some convincing to get Lestrade not to frame the article and put it up in the common room. It had also taken all of John’s persuasive skills to convince Sherlock to put the necklace out of his mind, as the thought that they hadn’t actually found out who’d taken it was casting him into a black mood. Even now, John wasn’t sure at all that he’d succeeded, but Sherlock was no longer pacing and muttering to himself, so he’d decided to leave it alone. As was custom now, John had phoned home, it being a Sunday evening, and Harry was finding the entire thing utterly hilarious.

“Right,” she managed. “That’s, uh – that’s – “ she dissolved into another round of guffaws, leaving her sentence unfinished.

“Fuck off, Harry.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock was vaguely aware of his lungs burning.

He let out a stream of bubbles and opened his eyes, tilting his head to watch them fleeing upwards. The oily black water around him was cool against his skin as he uncrossed his legs and let himself follow them.

He broke the placid surface so slowly that it almost tickled as his limp body turned so that he was lying on his back, his lungs singing in rejoice of the abundance of oxygen he was allowing them. The residual ache and light-headedness that he was left with after having pushed his brain cells to the point of passing out reminded him that his body was still there, his godforsaken heart still shoving blood through his hollow veins, as if it mattered.

His pupils dilated, letting in light that wasn’t there, not really. Moonlight. What a fraud. A mere copyright scandal.

The silence of the pool hall would have been deemed eerie by some, the water lapping at the quiet, the humming of the machines trying to push the quiescence away. For some time he watched the surface of the pool undulating with the ripples his body etched into it.

He turned over and slipped back beneath the water, kicking until his outstretched fingertips grazed the bottom, then flexing his spine until he was swimming parallel to the grimy tiles. He reached the side of the pool, and kicking his legs together, as if they were one entity, he propelled himself out of the water, hands coming up and pushing down on the floor as he twisted his body to sit on the side, water gushing off him and forming a disappointing puddle around him.

The dark swimming pool stretched out at his dangling feet, perfectly symmetrical, the moonlight shining in through the glass ceiling and throwing harsh shadows in unnatural crevices. The clock mounted on the far wall told him it was nearly two in the morning. There was approximately ten minutes until John, whom Sherlock had left sleeping in their room around forty-five minutes ago, would enter into REM sleep again, as his sleep cycle revolved around once more. Statistically, there was only a small chance that John would have a nightmare per block of REM sleep, but he seemed to be particularly prone during the witching hours.

Sherlock pulled his feet from the water and stood, padding wetly over to where he had left his clothes in a heap. He took off his swimming trunks and wrapped himself in his towel, drying off a little before putting on his pyjamas and a hoody over the top. He left his feet bare – it wasn’t too cold yet; the autumn was just settling into its skin. He rolled his trunks up inside the towel and took his exit via a window that had been thoughtfully left ajar, which led onto the roof. It had been left open by Victor Trevor, who had the last shift of the evening at the pool, and was, as they say, wrapped around Sherlock’s little finger, despite how much he liked to claim otherwise.

The night air wormed its way inside his clothes and made him shiver, body having gone from the humidity of the pool to the cold small hours too quickly for its feeble liking.

The walk back to Doyle was calming. Very few things, Sherlock had found, were calming to him. His own thoughts scratched and scraped at the inside of his skull, the blood too loud in his ears, making restful sleep fundamentally impossible and something even a semblance of waking rest even more so. However, ever since he was a child, the soft sound of his bare feet against the ground, the small noises of the night, the blank blackness of the sky, had distracted him from the futility and abhorrence of his own existence.

His brother had told him many a time that he was too melodramatic. Sherlock had always believed that he was simply honest. How virtuous.

He climbed silently up the old oak tree and slipped through the open window of room twenty one. He shut it steadily behind him. It was quiet, John’s breathing slow and even; as his eyes adjusted to the muffled dark of the room, Sherlock could see that his roommate was lying curled up on his side, facing the wall. He unrolled his towel and laid it on the radiator to dry, then moved to his desk and flicked on his lamp. By its sickly-yellow, energy-inefficient bulb, he checked his timetable for the next day. Biology, free period, double Latin, chemistry, another free period. He had an unfinished Latin translation open on his bed, only the title having been scrawled before he’d been distracted by something, he couldn’t remember what.

He reached up and blindly felt about on his bed for the homework, finding his phone in the process. Bringing it to eye level, he was irritated to find it flashing with three unread texts – Mycroft, Victor Trevor and Sebastian Wilkes. Smarmy morons, the lot of them. Mycroft nagging about something trivial, Victor making lewd suggestions, Sebastian begging to know the answers to the Latin. All perfectly ignorable.

He placed his phone on his desk and located the Latin.

Two pages of translated text later, Sherlock set his pen down and scrubbed his hands over his eyes. He was tired. Not something he’d be willing to admit to another living soul, but true nonetheless.

It was times like these he really missed the cocaine and the cigarettes and all the other things which kept him from being bored. The early hours of the morning always were the longest and most tortuous to him, when the world was comatose.

He had a blistering urge to scrawl a remark at the end of his work, something along the lines of ‘You know inside yourself that, when the last breath leaves your pitiful body, you will be alone and afraid and those will be the last emotions plastered on your face before what you believe to have achieved in your time spent on this ball of rock dissolves into oblivion’, because Latin at two in the morning was a massive inconvenience, no matter that he had been fluent since the age of five. But he didn’t. Because at that moment, John woke up.

It was bad that night. John was thrashing in his duvet, limbs entangled, gasping and sobbing and he was going to choke as his movements became ever more frantic – he threw his duvet off himself and scrambled to the ladder. Sherlock was on his feet, Latin falling to the floor. John put a foot on a rung but slipped, as his limbs seemed not to be under his control. Sherlock had moved to his side and was calling his name as loud as he dared, but John didn’t react as he stumbled to the floor, feet too heavy and arms useless, reaching for something on his desk as he pushed past Sherlock, breathing one word, disyllabic, over and over again like a prayer. He fumbled among his belongings, by chance catching what he was looking for and clutching it in his shaking fingers – his phone. John tried to unlock it but his fingers were shaking too much and the tears were coating his cheeks shiny wet, his vision no doubt blurry and indistinct. He seemed to become more and more agitated, face screwed up and breathing harsh and loud, too loud. Only when he dropped his phone and his legs gave out from underneath him and whispered – “Can’t -,” that Sherlock realised what was happening.

***

“Mummy –! Mum!”

Sherlock put his fingers in his ears and clutched his blanket tight to him as he pushed open the door to his brother’s room. Sherlock didn’t know why Mycroft was screaming like the toddlers from the village, but Sherlock wished he’d stop, because it made his chest hurt and his body want to curl up and run away and run to his brother at the same time.

It was dark in Mycroft’s room, and too tidy. Ever since Mycroft had turned into a teenager, he’d been pretending to be daddy more and more every day. He wasn’t like daddy tonight, though. Tonight he was bent over in his bed, duvet in a ball to one side, rocking backwards and forwards, and breathing too fast. “Mum, I-”

Mycroft was screeching like that baby bird Sherlock had found half-crushed underneath daddy’s car last week, half under his breath. Except this was worse. No matter how hard Sherlock pushed his fingers into his ears, he couldn’t make the sound go away.

Mummy was running down the corridor behind him, making the floor shake a bit. Mummies weren’t supposed to run. It wasn’t ladylike. Sherlock bet it also wasn’t ladylike to crawl across your son’s bed like that, not so fast and so ugly. Mummy got very close to Mycroft and whispered his name, and touched him very lightly on the arm. If it were Sherlock, he’d probably just give Mycroft a big hug, like Mrs Hudson’s hugs, and tell him that jelly and ice cream would make it all okay again. But Mycroft wouldn’t want a hug right then, Sherlock thought, if he was so upset about mummy just touching his arm – he nearly punched her! Why was he being such a baby? Why didn’t he just stop crying?

Mummy kept telling him to breathe with her, whatever that meant, and kept counting. Sherlock wasn’t sure that was necessary – Mycroft was sixteen now, he definitely knew how to count. Maybe he’d forgotten how and that was why he was so upset.

After ages and ages, Mycroft became stiller and his breathing was slower again, but he was still crying. Sherlock thought it would be safe now for him to go and give Mycroft a hug, maybe lend him his blanket for the night, he wouldn’t mind. He tip-toed around Mycroft’s bed and called his name, and his voice sounded very small. But Mycroft looked up and his face was all gross and red and snotty and wet and he snapped at Sherlock, he told him to “Go away!” Sherlock thought he said some of daddy’s favourite cursing words as well but he couldn’t be sure because Mycroft put his head in his arms before he could finish his sentence and mumbled the end of it, which was very bad manners, but Sherlock didn’t get a chance to tell him that because mummy looked at him very sternly and told him to go to bed.

It wasn’t fair - he was only trying to help! All the adults thought he was useless because he was ‘only five’, but in fact he was nearly six and a lot cleverer than most of them anyway. But when mummy looked at him like that, his will to be mean went away, so he went back to bed. But he did make sure to pout and stomp so that she knew he wasn’t happy about it.

Sherlock waited up for mummy to come in and kiss him goodnight once she was done with Mycroft, but she left his brother’s room a lot later, and she just went straight to her and daddy’s bedroom without a word.

***

Where his brother had been loud, John was almost silent.

He was on his knees now, now on all fours, coughing, and his breaths were quick and short. Sherlock dropped to the floor.

“John – John, listen to me,” he began, a little surprised that his voice wasn’t as steady as it had sounded in his head.

John had stopped coughing now, but had become very, very still, and Sherlock could see that he had his eyes shut tight and his arms, braced to support his weight, were shaking just a little.

“John?”

Again, no reaction.

He needed to get John out of his head.

He put a hand on John’s arm, just above the elbow. When John neither flinched away nor opened his eyes, Sherlock gripped tighter, until he could see, even in the strange half-light, that his fingertips were digging into John’s flesh.

Finally, finally, thank God, John raised his head and opened his eyes. He was still mouthing that word, but Sherlock still couldn’t quite make it out through the choking sobs still punctuating John’s every breath.

Sherlock put his head closer to John’s mouth to hear better, and –

“Harry, I can’t - Harry, oh God, Harry -”

His breaths were beginning to quicken once more as Sherlock pulled back his head. John’s face broke down again as the tears flowed anew and his body was racked with violent shaking.

“John,” Sherlock commanded, voice still wavering a little, why was that? “John. Look at me. Look at me.”

Sherlock gripped John’s arm a little harder, forcing John to stop trying to curl in on himself.

“Look at me, John.” John jerkily looked up, eyes flickering around the room, wide, the whites too white, pupils dark and unfocused. “John, look at me.”

John tried and failed to make eye contact, eyes fluttering shut from the effort. This is embarrassing for him, Sherlock realised. To be seen as weak and powerless as this, with no control over his body – John would find it humiliating.

“Focus, John. Look at me. Keep your eyes fixed on me, come on,”

Their eyes met, finally, John’s red and puffy, tears still streaming down his cheeks and running into the lines in his face and collecting there.

“Focus, focus, you’re going to be fine, John, I’m here, focus,” Sherlock said, quietly and quickly. “Do you want to go for a walk, can I do anything? John?”

John simply shook his head, still shaking and sobbing silently.

“Breathe, John, come on,” Sherlock urged. “Breathe, now –“ he exaggerated his own breathing to illustrate. “- In through the nose, come on, out through the mouth, come on, now, John,”

His hand was still gripped tightly around John’s arm, and now he gently pushed a little.

“Sit back, you can’t breathe curled up,” Sherlock kept pushing until John rocked back into a more natural position, never mind that he kept his knees drawn up in front of his chest, never mind, it was progress.

“You must’ve done this a thousand times before, John, come on, breathe.”

And there they sat, for minutes, hours, days, who knew, who could tell. There they sat, Sherlock’s eyes boring into John’s until he looked at him again, keeping the eye contact, keeping John grounded until he stopped shaking, until his breathing calmed, until they were breathing in unison, in, out, in out, in, out.

After a moment of quiet, John looked away and closed his eyes briefly, then reached out to where his phone was lying abandoned on the floor beside him. Sherlock watched as his fingers, then hand began to shake, as John quickly drew his arm away, curled both around his knees and hugged them to him, burying his face in the crook of his elbow and steadying himself again.

Sherlock reached across and picked up the phone - heavy, battered, scratched, battery dying, an old one of his mum’s, back when there was too much alcohol in the house and not enough affection to water it down with.

The screen was unlocked, a plain blue background staring questioningly back at him – well?

Sherlock went into John’s contacts. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H.

***

An obnoxious buzzing waded through the thick mud of Harry’s dreams. After grudgingly realising that it wouldn’t go away if she ignored it, she turned over and threw her hand out to her bedside table. She grasped her phone and brought it to her face, opening her eyes and waiting for them to focus to reveal – shit.

John.

She sat up and fumbled, cursing, to answer it.

“Hello? John? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

An unfamiliar voice replied, deeper than John’s, posher, quiet.

“Harry?”

“Who are you? Where’s my brother?”

“This is Sherlock Holmes, John’s…” the stranger seemed to falter.

“Oh, I know you, the one John’s always banging on about, his genius bestie or some shit, right?”

“Er,” The voice hesitated. There was some shuffling in the background. “Right.”

“And? Why are you calling me at three fucking AM?”

The voice cleared his throat. “John has just suffered a panic attack, but don’t –“

“Shit! Oh, shit shit shit…”

Harry and her mum had feared this. John hadn’t had one for a long time now, but there had always been the possibility… since he had stopped taking the sleeping pills, they’d thought… apparently not. They had thought he was pretty much recovered. He had told them he was pretty much recovered. He’d said the nightmares weren’t bothering him so much. He’d lied.

“Let me speak to him.”

“I don’t think - “

“Let me speak to him!”

Sherlock had moved away from the phone a little, and his voice was soft. “John?” There was a pause. Rustling.

“Harry.”

“John, oh my God. Are you okay?”

“I’m - I’m fine.”

“You don’t fucking sound it!”

John laughed a little; a weak, bitter exhalation, not much more. “I’m alright, Harry. Honestly. Uh, tired. Headache. But I’m okay.”

“Christ.” She listened to him breathe into the speaker. “What, uh, set it off?”

“A dream. Nightmare.”

Harry sighed. “You told us they’d gone away. You stopped taking the pills. You said –“

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want to worry you and mum.”

“Well, that didn’t work, because now I’m worried as fuck, and mum’s going to be out of her mind when she finds out.”

It was John’s turn to sigh. “The nightmares were getting better.”

Harry huffed the beginning of a protest.

“No, really, they were. It was good, I was good. But then they started getting worse again, in the last few weeks before school, before Bart’s. I knew you’d freak out if I said anything, and I could handle it anyway. I can handle it, Harry.”

That was a colossal lie, and they both knew it. But Harry said nothing. “Just make sure your posh-arse roommate knows what’s up, yeah?”

John laughed a little. “He does. He helped tonight, calmed me down. Are you going to tell mum now?”

“Nah, I’ll leave it ‘til the morning.”

“Alright. Sorry for waking you up.”

“Shut up. Idiot. Put it on loudspeaker for a sec?”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

“Okay… there.”

“Sherlock, or whatever your name is? You there?”

“Yes.”

“Right. I just wanted to say thanks. For not letting my idiot brother… for looking after him.”

“No problem,” said the deeper voice.

“Okay. John?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t lie to me again.”

Harry could imagine exactly what face John was pulling.

“Please?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“It’s fine, just… bit of a dick move.”

“Alright. Night, Harry.” He was smiling, Harry could tell.

“Night.”

***

As Harry disconnected the call and the screen went dark, John closed his eyes and passed his hands over his face. Sherlock watched, observed how tired he was. How getting up in the morning was going to be the toughest thing he’d do all week, how he would fall asleep in English, how his mother would call him as soon as lessons ended and cry down the phone at him, then shout, then apologise, how he’d dig his nails into his palms to stop himself shouting back. How he would pick at his dinner, how he would seem cheerful to his classmates, but how he would decline their offers to hang out, to socialise, to be consumed by their laughter and how he would, instead, go to their room and simply sit, sit and think, and how Sherlock himself would stand by and let him, because he didn’t know how, he’d never been taught how, to make other people feel like they weren’t alone.

Sherlock got up and went to the window. It was the darkest part of the night, and a light wind was making the tree outside shiver in the cold. He wanted to play his violin, and stood for a few moments considering whether John would care if it woke anyone up. He most likely would, but that was irrelevant.

He opened the case and lifted out the instrument. It had felt very foreign when he first played it, after having snapped the neck of the one that had once belonged to his father. But now if felt as natural as if it were an extra limb, an extension of himself, and much more articulate than he could ever be.

He settled the violin under his chin and put the bow to the strings. He found himself playing a vaguely-remembered composition that he had only heard once, not so long ago, not so long before he had left the fragile, sickening homeostasis of home for this virulent place.

Mr and Mrs Holmes were out of the country for the weekend, and Mrs Hudson had taken Sherlock and Mycroft to a church service in the village. Sherlock had protested all the cold walk there, spouting theories of atheism and kicking the frosted leaves along the lane in his small anger. Mycroft had just stared straight ahead, his hold on Sherlock’s arm like iron.

They had sat in the church and rubbed their stiff hands together as they waited in the dim dusk-light. Sherlock had his arms crossed, as much to keep himself warm as to continue to signpost his disagreement with this whole affair. He watched as a handful of old men and women shuffled in, joining them in the high-ceilinged silence.

Sherlock remembered nothing else from that service aside from one song that he’d been very careful not to delete. A capella, the voices soaring up into the creaking rafters, swelling and falling, then rising again, and in all of Sherlock’s eleven long years, never did he think he’d ever be captivated so by something coming out of an assortment of such painfully average-looking middle-aged mouths.

He had looked at his lap as the hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention, and the cold, it must have been the cold, made him shiver.

And now John raised his heavy head from his arms where he sat on the rough carpet and looked at the silhouetted figure standing by the window, watched him, as he had done many times before, as he swayed gently with the music that could very well wake the rest of the house, but was more likely to find its way into their dreams and calm them, make them smile in their sleep and sigh into their duvets.

Sherlock played by memory, and this was just as clear as it had been the night after the service when he had played it again and again, transforming the vibrations of vocal chords into vibrations of string and filing it under ‘contradictions’ in his head.

Sherlock had overheard John telling Molly Hooper a few days ago that there had been a fire drill one night, and that Sherlock had refused to move from where he had been standing, playing the violin, until he had finished the piece. John’s version of the tale was incorrect; Sherlock hadn't actively ignored the shrieking alarm – how could he have done, when he had not noticed it in the first place? The act of drawing the bow across the strings somehow simply shut out the rest of the world, just for a little while. Perhaps that was why he liked it so much – it was a distraction, and those were always in demand.

So he didn’t realise that John had risen from his seat on the floor and was standing beside him until the last quavering notes had faded out into the air above them. John leant on the windowsill and looked out into the world beyond. Sherlock laid his violin on his desk and joined him.

Sherlock was expecting a ‘thank you’ of some kind, as John had a tendency to do that sort of thing. But he didn’t receive one - not a verbal one, anyway. There, both of them with elbows on the windowsill, breath fogging up the glass, Sherlock realised that was gratitude, and that was enough.

 

 

Chapter Text

“So, as most of you will know, a couple of weeks after half term is the house singing competition.”

Lestrade addressed the house with his usual, good-natured exasperation, perhaps looking a bit more hallowed than usual, while John struggled to keep his eyes open. Morning registration was hard enough at such an ungodly hour as it was, but when your roommate had refused to let you turn the lights off until he was done burning something in the middle of the floor, the acrid smell of which was still in your hair despite two vigorous washes already that day, and especially when it was Monday, it was hell.

“The competition involves…” Lestrade sighed. “You know what, Eddie can explain.” He stepped back, rubbing his eyes. No nicknames today. Strange.

“Ex-wife,” Sherlock whispered to John in explanation, as if he’d heard his thoughts, sheathing and unsheathing a pen knife he’d acquired from god-knows-where.

The head of Doyle stood up from his seat on the sofa, threading a hand nervously through his dark hair.

“It’s very easy to understand. Every single member of each house must participate in this competition - ”

There were loud, indignant calls of “What?” and “That’s not fair!” from the Year Nines, until the group of Year Elevens next to them politely quietened them with graphic death threats.

“Each house performs a song in front of the rest of the school and the three judges, who are teachers from the Music department,” Eddie pushed on. “The winning house gets a trophy, and second and third places get their name on a shield. Simple as that.”

“So everyone’s got to sing and dress up and that?” A thirteen-year-old called out from the back.

“Yes, that is correct, and we-“ Eddie’s voice was once again drowned under mumbles of irate reluctance.

“Oi, oi, shut up,” Lestrade stepped forward again from where he had been leaning against the counter. “This is one of, if not, the most enjoyed of the house competitions, so don’t knock it ‘till you try it. Oh, and if I hear one single person say anything about it being ‘gay’, I will supervise their Saturday detention myself.”

The Year Nines fell silent.

“Yes, well.” Eddie cleared his throat. “The music has to be live, no backing tracks allowed, so in order to pick a song, we – myself and the rest of the Upper Sixth – need to know by the middle of this week who can play an instrument to performance standards. Any instrument; sitar, harpsichord, castanets, whatever. If this applies to you, please come and see me by Tuesday night. We need all the talent we have.”

***

Eddie looked up from his economics book as three sharp knocks rapped against his door.

“Come in,” he called, and the door opened to reveal that new Lower Sixth, John Watson, the one who’d managed to get himself in the paper.

“Hey, Ed,” he began.

“Eddie,”

“Oh, sorry,” the boy replied, looking genuinely remorseful. “Um, has Sherlock Holmes come to see you about the house singing?”

“Er, no, why?” Truth be told, Eddie was glad that he hadn’t. Interaction with that so-and-so was exhausting.

“He should have done,” John went on. “I’d like to put his name down for doing the music.”

The boy at his door had a no-nonsense look on his face. Eddie didn’t think he was going to be able to get out of this.

“Okay,” he shifted through the papers on his desk until he found the pitifully empty sign-up list and a biro. “What does he play?”

“Violin.”

“Well?”

“Exquisitely.”

Eddie raised his eyes from the paper, pen stuck on the loop of an ‘o’. The boy was looking at him levelly. Eddie had heard that since the Turner incident, he had been the recipient of some mocking. Not exactly surprising. He had also heard that that had all but cut out three days ago when one provocateur had found it necessary to spend the night in the san and John, completely coincidentally, of course, had been put in a four-hour detention with the Deputy Head. Eddie didn’t think it would be wise to challenge his word.

“How many people have signed up so far?” John asked as Eddie finished writing.

“Uh, four. Including Sherlock. And myself. Violin, piano, drums and saxophone.”

“That’s workable, right?” John smiled. “Hey, I’m pretty sure Eric plays bass guitar, you could sign him up too,”

Eddie considered it a moment. House competitions were about collaboration, team work, volunteering one’s natural strengths for the fun of it, and building good relationships between houses. And winning. Eric was in.

“By the way, if Sherlock asks who volunteered him, don’t even try and cover me, he’ll work it out anyway.”

Eddie’s mouth twisted into a bemused grin. “Sure.”

“Oh, and could you do me a favour?” John went on. Bit of a bold thing to ask your head of house, surely, thought Eddie. “No matter what he does, do not let him back out of this. He will try, believe me, and prepare to have all your secrets spat in your face, but do not back down.”

“You think we’ll lose without him?”

John laughed. “No way,” The smile was back. “It’s important that he does something other than singe holes in the carpet and annoy me.”

A vague memory of the evening air being diced by rotor blades, the heavy chunks of it falling accusingly onto the gathered crowd in the garden watching the air ambulance fleeing from the rooftop, and Eddie understood.

***

“What have you done,” Sherlock snarled, door banging open.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” John said. “How was Latin?”

“I’m not doing it. You can’t make me.”

Sherlock stalked into the room, going to the window and staring down at the pupils streaming past the house after the last lesson of the day.

“If you’re referring to the house singing competition which I did not sign you up for, my message to you is don’t be so childish,” John said.

Sherlock spun around suddenly and was in John’s personal space in two strides.

“Why did you do it?”

“Because you deserve some recognition.”

Sherlock was back at the window again.

“Shut up, you do,” John insisted.

“I didn’t say anything,” Sherlock pointed out.

“You don't stop talking, even when you aren't.  I think you’ll enjoy it.”

“I won’t.”

“What are you, five? Don’t be so close-minded.”

“Have you ever met me?”

“Unfortunately.”

John could see the tension in Sherlock’s shoulders and began to doubt whether he had made the right decision. He moved to his roommate’s side, watched his eyes tracing the people below. “Go on. Deduce me something,” he coaxed.

“Don’t patronise me.” Sherlock moved away.

Maybe John had done the wrong thing. He started to feel overwhelmingly guilty.

“Listen, if you really don’t want to do this – “

“Do you know what song they’ve picked?” Sherlock interrupted.

“Er – what? No,”

Come on Eileen. Come on Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. My God. There isn’t even a violin part.”

“Yeah, there is,”

“It’s a fiddle, John. A sodding fiddle. Not a violin. I can’t work with that kind of ignorance.”

John laughed. It was either that or punching the twat. “Fucking diva, you are,” Sherlock’s eye-roll was practically audible. “When do rehearsals start?”

“Now.”

“What?”

“Eddie ambushed me as I was coming up the stairs. I said I refused. He said that that was not going to happen. I told him that he might want to invest in a better nail varnish remover. His ears went quite red. I walked away. And here we are.”

“What a beautiful story,” John said. “Downstairs.”

Sherlock laughed. “And why would I do that?”

“Because you won’t be so high-and-mighty when I carry you into the common room over my shoulder.”

“Like you could do that,” Sherlock scoffed.

“You want me to try?” John went to put Sherlock in a fireman’s lift, but at the last moment, Sherlock realised John wasn’t joking and conceded.

“All right, fine,” he grumbled, reaching for his violin.

***

John followed Sherlock down and into the common room. There would be no shying away from this.

Eric, Eddie, an Upper Sixth who was nicknamed The Hulk by Lestrade (and everyone else - John doubted whether anyone actually knew his real name), a Year Nine called James but universally referred to as Ben Ten, and a Year Eleven called Marco, were gathered silently, each sitting on a separate piece of furniture.

Sherlock turned to John in a last-ditch attempt to escape.

“No.” John pushed him into the room, and quietly made his way to the sink. As he was rather curious about this, and to make sure Sherlock didn’t run away as soon as he left the room, John was intending to stay in the background of the rehearsal with the excuse of doing the mountain of washing up left to fester in the sink.

He got started, the hot water spluttering out of the tap, trying to keep the noise down so as not to distract the musicians and get kicked out.

“So,” Eddie began. “Erm. You all know what song we’re doing, has everyone heard it?”

“Do I need to be here?” Sherlock interjected. John sighed. Is this really necessary?  He thought wearily.

“Well, yes, I mean – “

“I can already play it.” Oh my God, shut up.

Eddie stuttered. “I haven’t even given you the sheet music yet, just – ”

“I play by ear. Mostly. If you play me the song once I will be able to replicate it.”

“Stop bragging, for fuck’s sake,” John said, then froze. “Did I say that out loud?”

The Hulk erupted into a badly covered up fit of giggles.

“Yes you did, John. Stop interfering.”

“I’ll interfere all I want if it gets you to be a slightly more tolerable person to work with.”

Eddie was staring at him with something like disbelieving awe which made John a little uncomfortable. John addressed him. “With your permission, obviously,”

“Right,” Eddie said. “I have the sheet music here, um, banjo – ” The Hulk took the booklet. “Drums, Ben – “ the skinny Year Nine took his booklet. “Bass is for Eric, there you go, saxophone is for Marco, and violin is Sherlock.”

Eddie held out the booklet. Sherlock made no move to get up. From the kitchenette, John mouthed at Sherlock to ‘just take it!’ until Sherlock did so, not particularly courteously, but he did flick through it very quickly when he thought nobody was watching.

Eric settled himself at the piano. “Right, then, shall we try it from the top? Sherlock?”

Sherlock threw a look at John, who simply beamed sickeningly at him in response. “Yes, fine,” he said, positioning the violin beneath his chin.

“Okay, when you’re ready, then, one, two, three…”

With perfect timing and precision, Sherlock began to play; the staccato notes accurate, the longer ones sliding effortlessly from the instrument. Seeing as there was no drum kit in the house, Ben Ten had the music open on his knees and struck imaginary drums with two pencils. Eddie’s fingers danced over the keys, The Hulk played a couple of wrong notes on his banjo, and by the bridge of the song, John found himself whistling along.

An hour and a half later, Eddie called the rehearsal to a close. Sherlock was at his wits’ end, complaining that ‘these people are basically tone deaf’ and that ‘we won’t even get tenth place at this rate’.

“I thought it was pretty good, for a first go,” John replied. “And you didn’t try to stab anyone with your bow, so that alone makes it a success.”

“I came close,” Sherlock muttered, before bounding up the stairs.

***

It was the last day of the half term. John’s bags had been packed since the night before. Sherlock’s stuff was still strewn all over the room, Sherlock himself scribbling something in a notebook.

“So are you actually going to take anything home with you, or is it all staying here for safe-keeping?” John said, re-entering the room after having booked a taxi.

“My brother can pack for me,” Sherlock mumbled, crossing something out.

“God, you can be so spoilt sometimes,” John exclaimed, leaning down to pick up a pile of socks. “No; you are going to pack, and if needs be, I will help. Come on.”

“Why?”

“Because your brother is your brother, not your servant,” John said, then paused. “Do you have servants?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Sherlock dismissed.

John located Sherlock’s trunk – who the fuck owns a trunk? – put it in the middle of the floor, and dumped his socks in the bottom.

“No, no, no,” Sherlock said, getting up and pushing John out of the way. “You’ve messed up the index.”

“Index?”

“Yes.”

“Care to explain?”

“You wouldn’t understand, it’s very complex.”

“All right then,” John went to the wardrobe and began pulling clothing off hangers, folding them as he went from there to the trunk.

They were silent for a while, Sherlock sorting his socks out in the bottom of the trunk, John leaving neatly folded shirts beside him on the floor.

Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at the door.

“Get lost,” Sherlock called. It had taken a while to get used to, Sherlock knowing who was behind a door by their step and knock, but now John generally ignored it, and tried to answer the door before Sherlock could open his mouth. He was too late this time, however.

The door opened. The figure in the doorway held an umbrella loosely in one hand, his tailored three-piece suit a little damp from the drizzle spattering the windows. There was a woman with glossy hair standing just behind him, texting at an impossible speed.

John moved in front of Sherlock.

“Hello, John,” the man drawled. “How lovely to see you again.”

“What do you want?” John demanded.

“Well, to take my little brother home, if that’s all right with you, Mr Watson,” the man said, eyebrows raised.

John turned to Sherlock, then back to the man. “What?”

Sherlock stood.

“John, this is my brother, Mycroft; Mycroft – well, it seems you’ve already met.”

The man, Mycroft, extended a hand. John shook it hesitantly.

“Let’s hope this meeting will be a little more… civil than last time.”

John swallowed and nodded.

“You’re early.” Sherlock stated.

“You didn’t ask me to come at a particular time,” Mycroft answered, surveying the room with an air of distaste. “So I took it upon myself to arrive when I saw fit.”

“I didn’t ask you to come because I didn’t want you to come.”

“Charming.”

“Uh, sorry,” John cut in. “So you actually do worry about him?”

“Indeed,” Mycroft replied. “God knows why, he never seems to return the favour.”

“Try and deduce why, Mycroft, it’s not terribly difficult,” Sherlock answered from across the room.

“Oh, shut up, Sherlock,” John said.

Mycroft looked at him. The woman stopped texting. Sherlock crossed his arms. A silence fell.

“Sorry, it’s automatic – no, I mean - it just slipped out, I didn’t mean…” John flustered.

Mycroft raised one eyebrow and John’s voice faltered and then cut out altogether.

“Well,” Mycroft said. “I was going to ask if Sherlock wanted any help with packing, but it appears that John has somehow beaten me to it. I’ll wait downstairs. Don’t be late, brother dearest.” He gave John one last, tight smile, and walked out, the woman – Anthea, John remembered – trailing behind.

As the door swung shut, Sherlock raised a middle finger to it, causing John to burst into laughter.

“What?” Sherlock asked. When he got no reply, he sighed and went back to packing, somewhat more purposefully than before.

“Oh, shit,” John said, sobering a little. “He’s going to hunt me down for telling you to shut up, isn’t he?”

“No,” Sherlock said, stuffing a pair of shoes into the rapidly filling trunk. “You impressed him.”

“I what now?”

“Pass me my laptop.”

***

John swept his eyes around room twenty-one. It was bare, the first time he had seen it thus since… well, ever.

As he dragged his suitcase down the corridor, the hubbub of voices coming from the ground floor grew louder. He bumped it down the stairs, the foyer beneath him swarming with boys and their parents, the floor barely visible beneath a layer of bags. He checked his watch – the cab was supposed to be arriving any minute.

Lestrade was holding the door open, and as John passed him, he wished him “a nice holiday, Doc”. John returned the sentiment, joining a cluster of boys outside the house.

The next few minutes were a whirlwind of goodbyes, slaps on the shoulder and promises to meet up in the holidays that would probably never come to fruition. One by one, the boys left, the group outside thinning until only John remained.

The unmistakable sound of Anthea’s heels behind him made John turn around. She and Mycroft were walking in front of Sherlock, Mycroft speaking into his phone in a low tone. They brushed past John without a word, making their way over to a sleek black Jaguar parked a few metres away across the road, a bored-looking chauffeur in the driver’s seat.

“Have a good half term,” John said to Sherlock as he approached. He stopped beside him.

“Unlikely,” he said. John raised his eyebrows. They had talked about this. “But thank you. And you.” Better.

There was a pause. A hug goodbye seemed appropriate, but he didn’t know whether Sherlock would have been comfortable with that. He was a bit peculiar about personal space and physical contact – he operated with a contradictory lack of both. So they both stood, watching the cars drive past.

“Um, not to be rude, but aren’t you meant to be leaving?” John asked.

“Not until I have to.”

Mycroft got out of the car. He didn’t call or beckon his brother, but Sherlock sighed and continued, “Which, it seems, is now. Goodbye, John.”

“Bye,” John called, watching Sherlock walk across the road to his brother. Mycroft raised a hand to John in farewell, then ducked back into the car. John waved as Sherlock shut the boot of the car and rounded to the back seat, the door of which was being held open by the chauffeur. Sherlock raised a hand in return.

The family resemblance between the two brothers was slight, but noticeable, present in certain facial expressions and gestures such as that one. The younger was like a rogue prototype of the elder, his wiring faulty, the circuit board cracked in places.

John watched the car pull out into the road, the tinted windows glinting in the weak sunlight.

***

Having no money to pay for yet another taxi, John walked home from the train station.

The familiar graffiti blossomed on the walls, the gum on the pavements like liver spots. The smell of petrol fumes and fast food lingered in the air, shouts and car horns like music to his ears. London. John thought cynically. Not as romantic as you might expect.

As he rounded the corner, he nearly walked into a boy in a hoody.

“Sorry,” he muttered, and continued walking.

“John? John!”

John turned around. The boy pushed the hood off his head and grinned. “John, mate! Long time, no see!”

“Dan,” John greeted him, his old primary school friend making his way towards him and encircling him in a rough hug.

“How you been, man? How’s the new school?”

“Insane, mate, bloody insane,” John said, conscious that he was due home well over an hour ago.

“Those posh fags get you into opera and caviar yet?” Dan joked.

John wasn’t really in the mood for this. He had been travelling all afternoon and he was tired and hungry.

“Not yet, not yet. Listen, I’ve got to go, my mum’s going to kill me if I’m any later.”

“All right, mate – oh, by the way, Mary’s having a Halloween party at hers, you should come.”

“Maybe, I think my mum’s making me stay home and answer the door this year.”

“Aw, ditch that shit, sneak out, and bring alcohol, yeah?”

“I don’t know man, we’ll see. I’ve got to go,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, sorry, mate,” Dan said, flicking the hood back up. “Good to see you.”

“Yeah, you too,” John called and began to walk away.

“Text me!” Dan yelled.

“Bye!” John returned, making a mental note to delete Dan’s number.

***

Something was wrong.

John walked up the pathway to his front door, a sense of unease growing with each step.

He went to unlock the door, but found it was already open.

The house was dark, quiet.

“Harry?” John called. “Mum?”

There was the sound of footsteps on the floor above. John dropped his bags and found the golf club kept just inside the door, holding it out in front of him.

Harry appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Oh, thank God,” John breathed, putting the club down. “Where’s mum?”

“Aw, she’s out,” Harry sang, bouncing down the stairs. “Where you been all day, Johhny? I missed you,”

“Uh, school?” John replied, locking the door behind him. “Why was the door unlocked, Harry? You’ve got to keep it locked when you’re home alone,”

“It wasn’t!” Harry exclaimed. “God, I’m not an imbe… imb… I’m not stupid!”

She sauntered past him into the kitchen, and began opening all the cupboards.

“What are you doing?” John asked, shutting them behind her. “Are you drunk or something?”

“No!” She said, a look of indignation on her face, eyes slightly unfocused. “I can’t believe you’d say such a thing ‘bout me,”

“Hey, come here,” John grabbed her by the arm. “Let me smell your breath.”

“Ew, gross,” she giggled, and John caught the strong scent of alcohol.

“Jesus Christ, Harry,” John cursed, letting her go. “Go take a cold shower, you’re smashed.”

“No, I’m not,” she denied vehemently. “It was only a couple of shots, and it was Clara’s idea anyway,”

“Clara? Where is she?”

“Oh, upstairs, sleeping. Sleepy Clara,” Harry said. “Whoa,” she swayed on her feet, and clutched the countertop. “I don’t feel too good…”

John pushed her towards the sink, and held her hair while she vomited.

“Ugh,” She groaned. “I’m gonna go lie down,”

“No, you’re going to go take a shower, nice and cold, okay? You’ve got to sober up before mum comes home or she’s going to kill you.”

“Okay, Johnny,” Harry said, wrapping her arms around him and squeezing him tight.

“Come on,” he said, and picked her up and carried her upstairs.

“You got strong,” Harry mumbled against his shoulder.

“Been going to the gym with Mike, remember?” John explained.

Harry yawned.

He put her down in front of the bathroom door, and turned the shower on. Once it was at the right temperature, he turned to her.

“You good? You don’t need me to help you?”

“No, that’s disg’sting,” she said, pushing feebly past him.

“Okay, be quick, we don’t want you slipping over, yeah? I’m going to check on Clara, and when you’re done and asleep, I’ll take her home.”

“Do you have to?” Harry whined.

“Yes, mum’ll kill her too if she’s here when she gets back.”

“Okey-dokey,” Harry said. John shut the bathroom door but didn’t lock it, and went into Harry’s room.

Clara was asleep on his sister’s bed, a small pool of drool crusting at the edges of her mouth.

“Clara?” he whispered. “Clara, it’s John. Wake up,”

Clara mumbled something and turned over.

“Clara,” he said, a little louder now. “You’ve got to go home.”

“Nu-uh,” she said thickly.

“Uh-huh,” John replied. “You’re going to be in trouble if you don’t.”

“Nah,”

“Yeah,”

She curled up into a ball and screwed her eyes tighter shut.

“Right. Come on, now. Up.”

When she didn’t respond, John slid one arm underneath her and heaved her upright.

Now she opened her eyes, and clumsily wiped the spit off her chin.

“Fuck off, John,” she said. John laughed.

“There we go, that’s more like it. Go and wash your face.”

Clara scrutinised him for a second, then stood up and walked out of the room, only a little unsteadily.

John heard the shower turn off and the girls talking as he went downstairs and into the kitchen.

He filled two tall glasses with water, two with orange juice, and fetched two doses of aspirin from the medicine cupboard. Rehydration, sugar, pain relief. The Watson family recipe for the prevention of throbbing hangovers, passed down from generation to generation.

He returned upstairs to find Clara tying Harry’s wet hair into a plait, both of them sitting on the floor. They both looked much more sober.

“Take this,” John instructed, handing them a glass of water and aspirin each. They did so, and, under John’s orders, drank the orange juice as well. “Better?”

“A little,” Clara said.

“Good. Do you want me to take you home, Clara?”

“I don’t need to go home,” she dismissed.

“Yeah, you do.”

“Are you kicking me out?”

“If you like, yeah, I am.”

“Fine.” Clara finished the braid and moved to fetch her shoes. “And no, I don’t need you to escort me, I’m not a kid.”

“All right, just asking,” muttered John under his breath as Clara pushed past him. He heard the door shut downstairs and then turned back to Harry.

“Bed.”

“No.”

“Harry, mum will literally murder you in cold blood if she comes home to find you drunk.”

“So why is it okay for her to do it?”

John didn’t have an answer to that.

“Just go to sleep, Harry. I’ll tell her you and Clara had a fight or something so you went to bed early. Okay?”

“Okay.” She clambered into bed. “Night.”

“Night, Harry.” He turned the light off and shut the door gently behind him.

Chapter Text

John was stirring spaghetti when his phone rang.

He fished it out of the back pocket of his jeans.

“Who is it?” asked his mum, turning down the radio a little.

“Sherlock,” John answered. This was the first he’d heard from his friend since their parting farewells at school five days ago, despite numerous texts from his end. He put the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“John.”                                                                                                      

“Hey, Sherlock, what’s up?”

“Where are you?”

“Uh, at home, why?” No reply. “Is everything okay? Sherlock?”

John shrugged at his mum as the line went dead.

“Is he always like that?” Mrs Watson asked, opening a jar of Dolmio.

“Yeah, pretty much,” John replied, putting his phone back in his pocket and returning his attention to the pasta.

Harry and Clara’s laughter floated down the corridor from the living room, almost lost under the sounds of cooking and his mum humming along to the radio.

“Hey, mum?” Harry yelled from the living room.

“Yes?”

“Are we going on holiday in the summer?”

“I don’t know, honey, why?”

“If we do, can we go to Spain?”

“Maybe, it depends on money,”

“Yeah, but if we have enough, can we go to Spain?”

“Let’s decide nearer the time, okay?” she said.

John knew full well that they weren’t going on holiday in the summer. They had to start saving so that Harry could go to a private school for sixth form, like John. Their mother had written off all of the senior schools in their catchment area as actively detrimental to their future CVs when John barely understood the meaning of the word Ofsted. She had high expectations for them, just as their father had. They hadn’t even started thinking about university, but John knew the possibilities were slim at best. But that was another problem for another day.

“I think we did a bit too much spaghetti,” John mused aloud. His mother agreed.

“We can save some for lunch tomorrow,“ she trailed off, attention caught by the shrill doorbell.

“I’ll get it,” Harry shouted, she and Clara coming into view as they walked down the corridor.

“I wonder who that is, at this time of night,” Mrs Watson grumbled.

“Oh, crap,” John cursed. “I know exactly who it is – wait, Harry, let me -” He rushed out of the kitchen, but his sister had already opened the door.

Sherlock stood upon the Watsons’ doorstep, a brown satchel slung over one shoulder. He looked momentarily startled to be greeted by two teenage girls, but his features instantly reformed into what John had named ‘The Greeting Face’, polite and unthreatening.

“Harry and Clara, I presume,” he said, noticing John over the girls’ shoulders.

“Sherlock,” John said, squeezing between his sister and her friend. “This is a, uh, surprise.”

There was a pause. Harry and Clara exchanged looks. John discreetly kicked his sister in the shin with his heel, and with a grunt, she pulled Clara away, back into the lounge, leaving Sherlock and John alone.

Sherlock’s eyes followed the girls until they were out of sight, then fixed on a point just above John’s head. They were slightly red-rimmed, his cheeks flushed from the biting cold. His face looked hollow, tired, his hair unwashed. He’s been crying, John thought. He was doubtful that anyone else would have been able to tell, but to him it was a fact both as obvious and startling as a slap in the face.

“Are you - ?” John began, but was cut off by a shout from his mother in the kitchen.

“Who is it?”

“Sherlock,” he returned, pursing his lips. “You’d better come in, then.” He stepped aside.

His roommate left his bag by the door, and started following John down the corridor.

“Hey, shoes off,” John instructed. Sherlock’s brow creased in confusion. “What, were you raised in a barn?”

Sherlock hastily toed off his shoes and placed them by his bag, John leading him into the kitchen.

“Mrs Watson,” Sherlock greeted John’s mother, and when John looked at him, that charismatic smile that John knew only too well had returned. All teeth and no sincerity. “Lovely to meet you at last."

Mrs Watson wiped her hand on a tea towel before shaking the one that Sherlock had offered. John watched as his mother visibly caved, as countless others had done before, under his roommate’s frankly sickeningly slick manners.

“Oh, please,” she practically giggled, “call me Jo.”

“Mum, is it okay if Sherlock stays the night?” John could feel a questioning glance from Sherlock upon the side of his head, but did not turn around to answer it.

“Yes, of course,” Mrs Watson said, obviously pleased that John finally had a bona fide friend-from-school, tangible proof that her son hadn’t spent the last month and half alone, crying himself to sleep with only binomial distribution for company. “Dinner’s in about two minutes.”

“Okay,” John said, eager to get Sherlock somewhere quiet. “Come on, I’ll give you the grand tour,” he said, mainly for his mother’s benefit, as he led Sherlock upstairs.

“Mi casa es tu casa,” he joked as they climbed the last stair. Sherlock didn’t respond behind him, and John stopped and turned around.

Sherlock’s charming smile and bright eyes had been left in the kitchen. It was evident he hadn’t eaten or slept for a few days, probably since the last day of school. His lank hair framed a ghostly pale face, and he moved with the lethargy of a dying man.

“Sherlock.” His roommate looked up from where he had been studying the carpet. “Why are you here?”

He didn’t reply for a while. John watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. It seemed a physical exertion to ask, in a tone John had never heard him use before, barely a whisper, hoarse and pleading, “Can I - ?”

“Stay?” John finished. This was not right. Not right at all. “You don’t need to ask.” John opened the door to the bathroom and flicked on the light. “Go and wash your face. You look like hell.”

Sherlock nodded and moved past him into the small room. John leant against the door frame.

His breath caught in his throat as Sherlock pushed up his sleeves.

John reached out and caught Sherlock’s left arm. Sherlock turned to him, confused.

John gently straightened the arm, the blue veins carving meandering rivers of blood beneath his skin. He traced a question into the cluster of puncture marks in the crux of Sherlock’s elbow with a finger, and looked to his friend’s face for the answer.

“Not today,” was the response. John released the arm and stepped back. Sherlock washed his face, once, twice, three times, and towelled himself dry.

“That’s better,” he said, giving him a smile. “Spag bol all right with you?”

***

Sherlock wasn’t eating.

They’d been at the dinner table for a quarter of an hour now, and Sherlock had only taken three, maybe four, mouthfuls of pasta.

He’d been chatting merrily away with Mrs-Watson-call-me-Jo about school, mainly, evading the topic of family as always. Harry and Clara were finding something about this whole thing very amusing, and kept laughing at not entirely funny moments.

John stared at Sherlock until he could no longer ignore him. There followed a non-verbal argument, something which would have gone along these lines had it been spoken aloud:

Why aren’t you eating?

I am eating.

No, you’re not.

I’m not hungry.

Fuck off you’re not hungry, you haven’t eaten in close to a week!

It’s none of your business.

Please eat.

Why?

It’s rude. Me and my mother slaved for hours over this bountiful feast. We killed the cow with our bare hands for the mince.

Please, Sherlock.

Just half.

A quarter.

Half. Please.

Sherlock picked up his cutlery and began to twirl his fork in the pasta. He and John had had that argument so many times it was beginning to become tedious, predictable, even. But it was still necessary.

“Do you have any pets, Sherlock?” asked Harry.

“A couple of horses,” John answered for him. He wasn’t going to let Sherlock use conversation as an excuse to otherwise occupy his mouth.

“Mum, can we have a horse?”

Mrs Watson laughed. “So, Sherlock, John tells me you want to be a detective when you grow up.”

“Consulting detective, mum.”

“What’s that?”

“Sherlock says it’s like a private detective, but not,” John explained for him.

“When the police are out of their depth, which is always, they would come to me,” Sherlock clarified, to John’s annoyance.

“Wow,” Mrs Watson’s eyebrows reached for her hairline. “A doctor and a consulting detective, I am in privileged company.”

“So, what was it like being gay with John? You know, for the case?” Harry asked, face the very picture of innocence as Clara choked back snorts of laughter beside her.

“Harry,” John cautioned, kicking her under the table.

“Fuck, ow, John!”

“Language!” Mrs Watson chided. Sherlock smirked, taking a little of the edge off John’s irritation.

“How is your new job going, Mrs Watson? I was sorry to hear about the cat,” Sherlock asked.

“What cat?” Harry asked.

“I had to put this old tabby down at work today,” Mrs Watson sighed. “And thank you for your sympathy, Sherlock – it’s never a pleasant thing to do,”

“I had a dog that had to be put to sleep when I was little,” Sherlock admitted, much to John’s surprise.

“You didn’t tell me that,” he said.

“An Irish Setter,” Sherlock elaborated, “named Redbeard,”

“Like Black Beard?”

“The very same.”

Mrs Watson had stopped eating momentarily. “I didn’t tell anyone about the cat...”

Sherlock opened his mouth, evidently about to unravel the whole spiel of his deduction, so John interrupted, for all their sakes. “He just knows things. Like I said.”

John spent the next twenty minutes in a disgruntled silence, as the girls grilled Sherlock for more and more daring deductions, and gasping at each one. Sherlock loved the attention at first – the limelight was more of a home to him than the fabled Holmes manor John had heard so little about. But after a little while, John could see that his friend was getting tired, the usual pleasure he took in making deductions fading and being replaced with irritation and weariness.

“What about – “

“That’s enough, now, Harry,” John said, pushing his chair back from the table. “Sherlock?”

Sherlock excused himself, copying John in taking the plates through into the kitchen.

“Thank you for dinner, Mrs Watson, it was delicious,” Sherlock said as he entered the room.  “Would you like any help with the washing up?” he asked, to which John’s mother turned around with a look of pure surprise on her face.

“Aren’t you a lovely young man,” she grinned.

“You’d be surprised,” John mumbled. Mrs Watson didn’t hear, but Sherlock did. John smiled sweetly at him.

“And thank you, love, but I’ll manage just fine. You two go and have fun.” She shooed them away. “And call me Jo!” she added as the two walked down the corridor.

John picked up Sherlock’s bag as he passed the front door, leading Sherlock upstairs. “Shower?”

“Er...” Sherlock began.

“Actually, that wasn’t really a question; those locks of yours need a wash,” John said, ushering Sherlock into the bathroom.

“Um – “

“You don’t have a choice. Do you have pyjamas in here?” John indicated the satchel.

“Um. Yes,” Sherlock answered, a little sheepishly.

“Presumptuous bastard,” John teased, reaching into the bag and handing him the same worn trousers and t-shirt that Sherlock wore to bed at school. “Don’t use up all the hot water,” he warned, closing the door.

***

Sherlock stepped out of the shower feeling, corporeally, at least, a little better. His muscles didn’t ache so much and John’s shower gel had helped to ease the stagnation of his circulatory system a little.

He had stopped shaking on the train to London, the last of the cocktail of drugs finally leaving his system. He was still clawing his way out of the depths of a mood swing, and still itched beneath his flesh for another hit, just one more, and then he’d stop forever, but one more, oh, god. But over the years, he’d learnt how to hide the withdrawal from all manner of hallucinogens and stimulants, as it manifest in fluttering fingers and sweaty foreheads. What he was experiencing that night was nothing; light by his standards. He’d be better in the morning, but for now, he was just tired.

He wiped a little of the condensation off the mirror and tried to part his hair as he liked it, but gave up after a couple of attempts which resulted in it flopping haphazardly over his forehead. He rubbed himself dry with a towel and donned his pyjamas. One last check to see that he hadn’t left anything out of place, and he unlocked the door and left the safety of solitude once again.

Directly ahead of him was a closed door, behind which was Mrs Watson’s bedroom, Sherlock assumed. The sister’s room was immediately to his right, the door open a crack affording a view of a cluttered floor and a lava lamp bubbling gently on a desk. John’s room lay to the right of Harry’s, the door open wide.

John was inflating an air mattress with a foot pump, softly singing something to himself about cardiac bruising. He had changed into his own familiar pyjamas, a fragment of the tableau of school looking irrationally out of place in such a homely environment.

John looked up as he noticed Sherlock in the doorway. Sherlock thought he must have looked like a lost child, with a bundle of clothes in his arms and bare feet.

“Your bag’s on the bed,” John said, and Sherlock took that as an invitation to enter the room. It was small, but tidy, as was John’s way, with barely enough room to walk around the single bed and blow-up mattress on the floor. No desk, unlike his sister’s room, no space for furniture besides a bookcase and wardrobe. The walls were painted the same unpleasant yellow-beige as the rest of the tiny house, the bed clad in dark blue linen and one light in the centre of the ceiling. The window in the wall opposite the door gave a view of the house opposite, lit by the orange glow cast by a streetlight.

“D’you want some socks?” John asked as Sherlock sat cross-legged on the bed, folding his clothes so as not to irritate John with mess.

“Yes, please,” Sherlock didn’t usually feel the cold, but perhaps it was just having had come out of a hot shower that was making him shiver a little.

John fetched a pair from the bottom of the wardrobe. “We don’t generally put the heating on up here, unless it’s really cold,” he explained, chucking Sherlock the socks and going back to the foot pump.

Everything about this house spoke of money-consciousness. The lack of a car parked outside, the peeling paint on the front door, the cautiousness about heating and hot water. Sherlock felt very foreign. Not uncomfortable, but hyper-aware of his own presence.

“So, what do you want to do?” John asked, deftly stoppering the now-inflated mattress and laying a pillow and duvet on top of it.

A mixture of responses came to mind – most of them involving class-A drugs. However, Sherlock didn’t think that John would smile upon that request. What was the correct answer here? The bland ‘oh, I don’t mind, whatever you want’? Was there etiquette to be followed?

“People in films appear to order pizza in these situations,” he said, for want of an actual answer.

“Ah, you have compiled data on the subject of sleepovers, then?”

“Not intentionally,” Sherlock finished re-packing his satchel.

“Well, would you like pizza?”

John seemed sincere. Inappropriately so. Pizza should not have warranted such a look of concern as that.

“We have already eaten.”

“Well, what then?”

“I don’t know, is there not supposed to be some sort of teenage crisis about now? To pull us away on a night-time adventure which ends up with the spotty boy winning the affections of the suspiciously-curvaceous-for-her-age girl?”

“If this was a movie, maybe,” John laughed. “Is that where all your data on this subject comes from?” he teased.

Sherlock put on his best nonchalant face.

“No,” John gasped, like a salacious housewife. “This is your first ever sleepover?”

Sherlock put on his best ‘try me’ face.

“Oh, well, in that case, I will have to give you the classic treatment,” John declared, standing up and indicating for Sherlock to do the same.

They walked down the corridor and descended the stairs. “We will eat tons of junk food and watch a god-awful film and… and maybe prank call someone, and at some point my mum has to shout at me while you stand in the background and not know where to look – Harry, what time is it?”

“Half eight,” Harry replied as they passed her and Clara on the stairs. “Why is mum shouting at you?”

“She’s not - I was just saying that it has to happen at some point tonight; it’s Sherlock’s first ever sleepover and I’m making sure he covers all the basics,”

“Oh, don’t forget the bit where you start talking about the meaning of life at three in the morning,” added Clara.

“True that,” agreed Harry. “And you’ve got to take stupid amounts of selfies and spend hours talking about boys and do each other’s hair and paint each other’s toes,”

“Yeah, thanks, Harry,” John called as he and Sherlock entered the living room.

“Hi boys, everything okay?” Mrs Watson asked from the sofa. “Do you want anything?”

“Do you want anything, Sherlock?” John turned to him.

“Some heroin would be nice,” Sherlock said, and almost delighted in the way John’s face blanched and he flustered and tried to explain to his mother that ‘he was joking, obviously’. It wasn’t necessary, as Mrs Watson laughed and got up from the sofa, stretching.

“Everything set up upstairs?”

John affirmed, and told his mother that she didn’t have to get up for them, she could stay, it was fine. John was always doing that, and Sherlock still hadn’t worked out why.

Mrs Watson made some excuse about it being an early start tomorrow and needing a good night’s sleep, but it was a blatant lie – the glass of undrunk wine in her hand said so. Perhaps John hadn’t noticed, or he didn’t want to.

Mrs Watson left the room, and John turned back to Sherlock.

“What the fuck was that?” he hissed.

“What?”

“About the - " he lowered his voice - "about the heroin.”

“It was a joke, John.”

“You and I both know that is a fucking lie.”

John was right, but Sherlock had known Mrs Watson wouldn’t take him seriously. “I thought honesty was a good thing,” Sherlock said, knowing he was being obtuse.

“Admitting that you’re an addict to my mother is not a good thing.”

John had that expression that seemed to occupy his face a lot of the time. Angry and worried. Sherlock really had done something wrong. “I... I apologise, John.”

John sighed and his face softened. “That’s okay. The whole drugs thing just scares me, that’s all.”

Why? Did his father’s death have something to do with it?

“Right,” John said, a little too brightly. “Phase one: popcorn and hot chocolate. You go and get the duvets from upstairs and I’ll sort out the food.”

Despite thinking this entire affair was beyond infantile – he’d only come to John for… well, not for this whole sleepover debacle, that was certain – Sherlock climbed back up the stairs and scooped up the two duvets in John’s room.

On his way out, most of the fabric trailing behind him, there was a small crash. Sherlock doubled back to find that the duvet from John’s bed, while being pulled out of the room, had knocked over a walking stick that had previously been hidden behind the door. He picked it up.

Lightweight, understated, as inconspicuous as possible, provided by NHS. Hasn’t been used in at least six months, but it when it was, John had been hugely dependant on it to support his... yes, his right leg. Psychosomatic injury there, have already seen traces of a limp remain now when he is under stress.

There was a creak in the corridor behind him, and Sherlock jumped, but it was only Mrs Watson going into Harry’s room for something. Sherlock replaced the cane and continued downstairs. He had suspected that, after the passing of his father, John had had two injuries; one physical and one psychosomatic, not to mention the obvious PTSD, which he never called by its name. Sherlock recalled how John had limped slightly after having met Mycroft for the first time.

He dragged the duvets into the living room. He had no further instruction, so he dumped them rather unceremoniously on the floor. There was the faint sound of a microwave purring coming from the kitchen, and Sherlock followed it.

John was drumming his fingers on the countertop, watching the brown bag in the machine rotating slowly.

“I thought popcorn was made in a pan,” Sherlock commented.

John broke out of his reverie and smiled. “We don’t have time to be old-fashioned,” he explained. “We have a lot to pack in tonight.”

The machine dinged, and John retrieved the bag and emptied its contents into a bowl. “Get the milk out the fridge?”

Sherlock did as he asked, and set the bottle on the counter.

“I am going to teach you the great art of hot chocolate,” John said, getting two mugs from a cupboard that was a little too high up for him.

“Right,” he began, putting the mugs on the table next to the milk. One chipped and worn, no-one remembers who bought it, the other newer, a Christmas present from a concerned relative. He spread his arms and stepped back.

“You want me to – ”

“Yes. Go on,” John folded his arms, an expectant smirk on his face.

Sherlock hesitated for a moment. “Milk first, I assume.”

John smiled and nodded.

Sherlock unscrewed the cap of the milk – full skimmed to accompany the Weight Watcher’s membership card resting on the table in the hall – and carefully poured it into the older mug. He went to do the same to the rose-patterned other, but John made a noise and told him to do one at a time – “so you can refine your technique”. Sherlock thought that to be a risible remark, and told him so, but obeyed.

What next? Is there not supposed to be some sort of – “Powder? Yes?”

“Not yet.” John cocked his head in the direction of the microwave.

Sherlock carried the mug over and deposited it in the machine. A quick calculation in his head involving wattage and the boiling point of milk gave him the optimum length of time at – “One minute thirty four point two seconds,”

“One thirty will do,” John said. “I’m afraid our shitty microwave isn’t accurate enough for your standards.”

Sherlock punched in the numbers, each with an accompanying beep that drilled right to the centre of his skull, and set the mug rotating.

He leant back against the counter, the timer ticking away in his peripheral vision.

One minute twenty six.

“I didn’t even know you could inject cocaine. Thought you snorted it. Not - not you specifically. One. I thought one snorted it.”

One minute twenty three.

“Quicker. Sharper.”

“Riskier.”

One minute nineteen.

“At school?”

“No.”

One minute seventeen.

“...Not regularly.”

“Who from?”

“Groundskeeper’s son.”

“Since year eleven?”

“Ten.”

One minute nine.

“When was your last HIV test?”

“John..."

“When?”

One minute six.

“Last year. When they took me to hospital.”

Fifty nine seconds.

“Will you do another one?”

“I don’t need to.”

“I’d like you to.”

Fifty six.

“Does your brother know?”

“Of course he does. He knows everything.”

Fifty three.

“Why?”

“It makes everything… so clear.”

“No, why since school broke up?”

Forty seven.

“Was cocaine a factor in your father’s death?”

Forty five.

“What?”

Forty four.

“Was cocaine – ”

“I heard you.”

Forty two.

“No. It wasn’t.”

Forty.

“Did he ever – ”

“Why are you asking me this? No.”

Thirty six.

“Then why are you scared of it?”

Thirty four.

“I’m not.”

Thirty.

“I’m scared of losing you to it.”

Twenty eight.

“I’m not suicidal.”

“Mmm.”

“I’m not.”

“You were.”

“I – ”

“Shut up.”

Twenty.

“Who in your family has panic attacks?”

Eighteen.

“Mycroft. And ‘had.’ They started just before our father left.”

Fifteen.

“Thank you.”

Fourteen.

“For what?”

“That night.”

Eleven.

“It was embarrassing and messy and I’m sorry.”

Nine.

“Yes, it was.”

Eight.

“But don’t apologise.”

Six.

“Harry was in the place of my father in my dream that night.”

Four.

“You dream of his death?”

Two.

“And every time I can do nothing to stop it.”

The ding of the microwave shattered the conversation. Sherlock opened the door and brought out the mug.

John reached into another cupboard and handed Sherlock a purple cardboard container of powder.

“How many?”

“Well, mister consulting detective, check the side,”

Sherlock turned his head and read the small writing on the side of the container. Three heaped teaspoons, it read. “Where is your cutlery kept?”

“Er.” John went over to the sink, where assorted knives, forks and spoons lay on the draining board. He held up a teaspoon to the light, rubbed it a little with the hem of his shirt, and gave it to Sherlock.

Under John’s scrutiny, Sherlock dropped the requisite three heaped teaspoons of the mud-like powder into the hot milk and stirred until he could feel no more grit at the bottom of the mug.

“Voilà,” he said.

John unfolded his arms, picked up the mug, and took a sip. He raised his eyebrows and nodded.

“Not bad,” he commented. “Not bad at all. Now again.”

Sherlock repeated the entire process in the other mug, until John made a disapproving sound in his throat and shooed Sherlock away in the middle of adding the powder.

Sherlock could observe no discernable difference between what John did next and what he had done, except the more-vigorous-than-necessary stirring, recreating the eddies of the torrid Thames in miniature.

“Voilà yourself,” John said, offering the mug to Sherlock.

“Your accent is terrible,” Sherlock took a mouthful and was pleasantly surprised.

John must have been able to see this on his face, because he laughed, the seriousness smoothed away.

“It’s disgusting,” Sherlock said, truthfully. And yet he found himself taking another gulp, if only to feel it coating his throat in its sickly-sweet warmth as it ran down his oesophagus.

“Brilliant,” John said, whether it was to himself or to Sherlock was unclear.

They moved back into the living room, and John set the bowl of popcorn down on the carpet.

“Phase two,” John said. “I will go and find a shitty comedy.”

He left the room, and Sherlock could hear him on the floor above, talking to Harry. He returned with a DVD case in his hand, the colours too bright, the font of the title simplistic, the actors grinning with whitened teeth and bronzed skin out at the world.

“Here we have,” began John, as he turned on the television and inserted the DVD into the slot, “one of the shittiest films ever made. Blatant sexism, slapstick, tasteless jokes and a cringey ‘happy ending’, a must-see for sleep-over goers everywhere.”

John turned around and seemed surprised to find Sherlock still standing.

“Well, sit down, then,” he instructed. Sherlock did as he said as John flicked the lights off and joined him on the other end of the sofa. John heaved the duvets off the floor, deposited one on Sherlock and wrapped himself in the other, half lying down and half sitting up. Sherlock copied him, and found that John’s old, dirty sofa was gorgeously comfortable.

His own body heat began to warm him as the opening titles rolled, along with the mug of hot chocolate he cradled in his cold hands. This was not what he had envisioned himself doing that evening, but it wasn’t an unpleasant turn of events, not really.

The film was, indeed, as John had put it, ‘shitty’. The acting was of school Nativity standards, the script had no continuity and the score seemed vaguely familiar. The plot involved a family conflict – they wouldn’t know family conflict if it stabbed them with Poseidon’s trident – and a series of predictable events that led to the eventual conclusion wherein the protagonist got engaged and then reunited with his family, whom he grew to love, despite their ‘eccentricities’. This Sherlock had deduced before the first scene had come to its long-awaited conclusion.

He looked over at John.

In the blue light of the television as it flickered over his features, John’s eyes were fixed on the film. He himself had admitted that it was a bad movie, and yet he still watched it. In that way, John was very similar to the rest. To other people. He liked his home comforts; hot drinks, warm socks, crappy rom-coms. ‘Escapes’ had been the term Mycroft had used. Sherlock’s ‘escapes’, he supposed, were the drugs and the deductions – data, data, data. Scientific, logical, understandable.

Everyone has them.’ Mycroft had explained to Sherlock’s nine-year-old self. ‘For some it is money, for some it is fluffy animals. For some it is beer and darts, for others it is gardening. They are ways to forget about one’s troubles for a while. Even the boy who gave you that black eye; that is his escape, you see. People are weak, in that manner. Daddy’s escape was the maid, mummy’s is glittery jewellery and expensive dresses. Yours appears to be science and experiments. Boring as they may sound, they are, unfortunately, essential.’

The bowl of popcorn lay on the floor – a food that would never be allowed in his house. Sherlock reached down and took a handful. It was salty and dry, and he ate the handful very quickly, chased down by a large gulp of hot chocolate. Not something he would want in his house, he concluded.

John chuckled at something in the film. Sherlock pushed the sound from the television away and listened to the cars outside, some near, some far. It was a sound he was unused to, surrounded for most of his life by open fields and silent forests as he had been. There was the occasional scream of a siren and a shout, a dog barking and footsteps on the pavement outside.

For the most part, John was quiet. Breathing steadily, sipping from his mug every now and then. He shifted, and Sherlock could feel the heat from his feet against his own. Not touching, but close.

He didn’t remember nodding off, but he must have done so, as the next thing he remembered was John nudging him with his feet beneath the duvets. The end credits scrolled past on the screen, and John had turned the volume down so the accompanying music was barely audible.

“Bed?” John asked softly.

Sherlock hummed a reply, too sleepy to say anything else.

John gathered up both duvets in his arms and Sherlock slowly followed him upstairs. John had arranged the duvets by the time he entered the room, and he began to lie down on the air mattress on the floor.

John made a disapproving sound. “Take my bed.”

“No, John, don’t be stupid,” Sherlock argued half-heartedly.

“Oh, shut up,” John said, and gently pushed him towards the bed.

“I’m going to tidy up, I’ll only be a minute,” John said, leaving the room. Sherlock heard his steps on the stairs. The bed had a gravitational field of its own, an inexorable pull, but Sherlock forced himself to locate his toothbrush and paste and head into the bathroom.

Having brushed his teeth and given in to the insidious calling of mattress and pillow, Sherlock was lying in bed replying to Mycroft’s worried texts when John came back up the stairs. Sherlock heard the sound of the tap in the bathroom.

Mycroft:Where are you?

Mycroft:Are you safe?

Mycroft:Are you with John?

Mycroft:Where are you?

Mycroft:For God’s sake, Sherlock.

Mycroft:You are so childish.

Mycroft:If you do not reply to me within the next half an hour I will find you.

The last text had been sent twenty nine minutes ago, so Sherlock tapped out a brief reply:

Sherlock:At John’s house. Be back tomorrow.

John came in as Sherlock locked his phone and placed it on the floor. John closed the door and drew the curtains, which didn’t do all that much to block out the light from the streetlamp outside.

In the dark, John’s orange-tinted silhouette wrestled with the duvet on the mattress before lying still, facing Sherlock.

“Night,” he said quietly.

“Goodnight,” replied Sherlock, already feeling sleep sitting upon his eyelids. He pulled the duvet up around his chin and pressed his face into the pillow, inhaling the familiar smell of John as each breath deepened and lengthened, until sleep dragged him under once more.

***

John woke slowly.

Sherlock’s breathing was slow, regular, almost silent. The house was quiet. The clock ticked in the corridor outside his room.

The duvet was soft against his bare calves where his trousers had rucked up during the night. The bed linen smelled of the airing cupboard where John had got it from the night before, dust and stale air.

He opened his eyes. A few inches in front of him, an arm dangled limply from the bed. Sherlock’s skin was alabaster-pale in the weak morning light. John stretched where he lay, and pushed the duvet off himself. After a pause, he stood up, looking down at the boy in his bed.

Then it struck him; it was the first time John had seen his roommate asleep. At school, Sherlock invariably went to bed later and woke up earlier than John, and John hadn’t noticed that he had fallen asleep until the film had ended last night, at which point he’d woken him up.

There wasn’t all that much to see. Sherlock had buried himself in the duvet, the only visible parts of him being his tangle of bird’s-nest hair strewn across the pillow and the arm draped over the side of the low bed, fingers scraping the floor.

John tip-toed out of the room, the clock in the corridor telling him that it was ten past seven. Harry’s room was silent, the girls still sound asleep. His mum’s door was open – early shift this morning.

Mrs Watson was standing in the kitchen in deep thought when John entered. She was still in her pyjamas, wrapped in a bathrobe and clutching a cup of coffee.

“Morning, mum,” he said.

“Morning,” she replied. “Coffee?”

“Please.”

John leant against the counter while his mother poured him a mugful and handed it to him.

“Sherlock not up?”

“No, he was pretty tired last night.”

“He seemed it.” She took a sip from her mug. “He looked a bit ill. Didn’t eat much.”

“Yeah, he’s not the healthiest of people,” John lied. Understatement of the century.

“As long as he’s okay?”

“Yeah,” John sighed. “I think he will be.”

“Do you know why he’s here? Is everything all right at home?”

“I honestly don’t know. I don’t think he’d tell me if I asked.” His mum said nothing. “Do you want me to go and wake Harry and Clara?”

Mrs Watson opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment, Sherlock padded into the kitchen.

His hair was standing up in all directions, eyes still half-closed. He stood next to John, who could feel the heat radiating off his rommate's skin, still warm from bed.

“Morning,” John said.

“Mor – “ Sherlock yawned. “…Morning.”

“Sleep well?”

“Mmm,” Sherlock answered, rubbing his eyes. His voice was even deeper than usual, rumbling with disuse. “I can’t remember the last time I agreed to that question. I feel like I’ve slept for centuries.”

“Well, then, Sleeping Beauty, I expect you’ll be wanting some breakfast, then?”

There was a click. Sherlock and John turned to Mrs Watson.

“Mum, what the fuck?”

John’s mother was holding a disposable camera, grinning. “I found it in a drawer yesterday,” she explained, not bothering to chastise John for swearing. “I just remembered it, and thought you might want it,” she handed it to John. “I don’t know if there are any pictures on it already, but I thought you could, I don’t know, document this year with it, it being a big year of change for you and all that.”

“God, mum, that’s so naff.”

Mrs Watson slapped John on the arm. “Oi, be grateful.”

“Thank you Mrs Wats-“ Sherlock began.

“Jo!”

“...Jo.”

“You see, John?” Mrs Watson said. “Sherlock knows his manners.”

John turned the bright yellow camera over in his hands. “I’ll go and wake the girls.”

***

“Thank you very much for having me, Jo.”

“You’ve said that, like, thirty times already, let’s go,” John tugged on Sherlock’s sleeve.

Mrs Watson, in her veterinarian’s uniform, leant against the doorjamb. “It was my pleasure, love. Now go. John’s getting anxious, look.”

Sherlock waved as John pulled him away from the front door and down the path. Harry and Clara, in their rolled-up school skirts and with their swinging pony-tails, were several metres in front of them.

“I think my mum’s going to propose to you at some point,” John commented, once they were out of sight of the house.

“You don’t think I overdid it?”

“She melted like butter, mate – not even butter; bloody margarine.”

They fell into step, something John had once thought impossible due to the fact that Sherlock’s legs were at least double the length of his. We must look a picture, John thought. Sherlock ‘sharply dressed’ Holmes and John ‘throw on the same clothes you’ve been wearing for a week’ Watson. Next to Sherlock, John always felt underdressed, even when they were both in their pyjamas.

Sherlock’s phone rang, and he answered it with the sigh that meant ‘Mycroft’. “I’m on my way to the station. No. No! Jesus Christ, Mycroft, you know full well – do you think I care?” Sherlock hung up, then saw John was looking at him. “What?”

John shook his head. The phone rang again. John held out his hand, and Sherlock reluctantly gave it to him.

“Hello, Mycroft,”

“John Watson? A sound for sore ears.” Mycroft sighed. “I truly apologise for my brother’s behaviour, turning up at your house uninvited, he really has no thought for anybody but himself – ”

“No, no, it wasn’t an inconvenience at all. We’re walking to the train station now, he should be home in about an hour, I’m guessing.”

“Yes. Thank you. Well. Tell him I will set the police on him if he isn’t home by ten. Goodbye.”

“No, wait, Mycroft - ”

“Yes?”

“Why did Sherlock turn up at my house last night? What happened?”

Sherlock, on hearing John’s question, tried to wrestle the phone off him. John easily held him off by using his free hand to hold both of Sherlock’s thin wrists together. Sherlock was strong, but John was stronger.

“Our aunt came to stay.” Mycroft said wearily. “Well. Not stay. She moved in. We didn’t tell Sherlock because we knew he’d just refuse to come home from school. When he did come home on Friday to find her in our mother’s old chair, he went to his room and didn’t come out for four days. Needless to say, we all tried to coax him down, but to no avail.” He sighed. “When he did come out, finally, yesterday at around lunchtime, he was being uncomfortably civil. Even ate with us. I went to my study, thinking it was all right to leave them alone together, but not five minutes later, I heard the door slam and Sherlock was striding down the driveway with a bag over his shoulder. Viola – our aunt – looked so much like our mother when I questioned her about it. Anyway, it was only after a few hours of worrying that I realised he’d go to you.”

“I see.” John let go of Sherlock’s wrists.

“Oh, John,” Mycroft added, “on second thoughts, I will meet you and Sherlock at Tower Hill. I am working in London this morning, so I shall bring him home after lunch. Perhaps it would be best for us to discuss familial matters away from home.”

“Sure, okay,” John agreed. It seemed he nor Sherlock had much say in the matter.

“See you then.” Without waiting for a reply, Mycroft ended the call.

John handed his friend back his phone. “Change of plan; we’re taking the tube to Tower Hill,” he said.

Sherlock made a sound of disgust. “He wants to take me to lunch at that fancy restaurant that serves disgusting food at so high a price everyone is too scared to criticise it and then lecture me about Viola.” He spat the name of his aunt and kicked a stone.

They spent the rest of the walk in silence. John didn’t really have anything else to say to that last remark because it was true, and Sherlock knew it was, so it was unnecessary for him to say so.

A lot of their time in each other’s company was spent in silence. And that was fine. John had always been the quietest of his friends, and Sherlock spent more time in his head than out of it. However, even though they weren’t speaking, they weren’t ignoring each other. Their footsteps falling in and out of synch, their heads turning at a sound, both of them stepping aside to let a stranger pass. A mutual decision that neither had anything to say, so they may as well not say anything at all.

At the gates of John's old school, John said goodbye to Harry and Clara. Harry duly pretended to be embarrassed, and John waved as she joined a pack of her friends. He was surprised to find seeing the place again provoked no emotion in him.

The tube station was only a few minutes away, and while Sherlock bought a ticket, John stood next to him and marvelled at the variety of people swept along in the crowds in front of them.

The deep escalators made John’s head spin, as always, and the Victorian tunnels channelled hot air into a rushing wind that swept John’s hair off his forehead, as always. On the crowded platform, John’s eye was caught by a group of girls about their age, talking with their heads very close together, giggling around their chewing gum, and looking at him and Sherlock. Specifically Sherlock.

He nudged his friend. “They’re checking you out,” he said, knowing that Sherlock would know who John was referring to.

Sherlock turned his head very slightly and fixed the girls with what John knew would be a penetrating glare. The girls stood a little straighter, smiling a little wider. As soon as Sherlock turned away again, they whispered excitedly to one another.

“I know,” he said, as if it was the dullest thing in the world. Which, to him, it probably was. John had noticed that his friend often had that effect on others of all ages, despite his youth, and it was no great stretch of the imagination to see why. If John didn’t know Sherlock and saw him in a crowd, he knew that his strange face would linger in his memory.

Not strange, John thought as the train came into the station. Unique. Cheekbones higher than their owner on a Saturday night, throwing deep shadows onto Twilight-pale skin. Eyes the colour of everything and nothing at the same time and a scowl that was almost offensive. Each movement controlled and efficient. Striking.

At Tower Hill, John and Sherlock didn’t have to look very far for Mycroft when they emerged into the sunlight. The crowd parted around him like a river around a rock.

“John, Sherlock,” Mycroft greeted them.

“If you make me eat that foie gras again, I will regurgitate it upon your shoes.” Sherlock replied.

“Nice to see you again,” John said, ignoring Sherlock.

“And you, Mr Watson,” Mycroft returned, also ignoring Sherlock. “Thank you again for taking care of my wayward brother. If your mother wants any… remuneration for her trouble, then – “

“Please stop offering us money,” John interrupted. “She was happy to have Sherlock, as was I.”

Mycroft raised his eyebrows. “If you say so.”

“I do. You don’t need to pay me for being his friend.”

“Friend?” Mycroft snorted incredulously. “How interesting.” He regarded John with something akin to pity. “Come along, Sherlock,” he resumed after a moment. “Let us leave John to his business.”

“Goodbye, John,” Sherlock said. “Thank you.”

“Any time.” Sherlock nodded. “I’m serious,” John added. Sherlock nodded again, a little slower. “And reply to your bloody texts, don’t just ignore me for five days straight this time, yeah?”

Sherlock smiled a little. “See you.”

“Bye.” John raised a hand as the brothers walked away, Sherlock with his hands shoved in his pockets, Mycroft twirling that bloody umbrella of his. It wasn’t even raining.

Chapter Text

John leant against the wall of the entrance to the tube station eyeing the leaden sky suspiciously. There was the after-taste of rain in the air, and his hair was still slightly damp from the retreating downpour.

His phone hung heavily in his trouser pocket, unanswered texts from his friends from his old school adding a couple of extra kilos, it seemed. He wasn’t replacing the people he’d grown up with, he kept telling himself. Sherlock needed distractions, and John happened to be one of those, he liked to think. It was necessary.

Speaking of, John thought, as a new wave of passengers flooded out of the station.

He stood on tip-toes to scan the crowd for a head of dark curls, growing increasingly frustrated as his roommate failed to present himself.

“John.”

“Fucking – Jesus, Sherlock, don’t do that!” John exclaimed, turning around to his friend who was standing behind him. John smiled at him, but Sherlock didn’t quite return the gesture – his eyes, instead, flicked over John. It was quite unnerving, to be read like that, but John was gradually getting used to it.

“How long has your mother been gone?” Sherlock asked.

“That’s a cheery way to start a conversation,” John replied lightly. Sherlock said nothing. “It’s going to rain again, come on,”

They started walking.

“Uh,” John began, “she left about ten this morning,”

“Fight?” Sherlock asked.

John inhaled deeply and nodded. “Go on, then, tell me how you knew,” he prompted.

“You look tired, John.”

“Hey, you don’t look too great yourself!” John countered teasingly, before realising what the reason might be. “Oh, Sherlock,” he said under his breath.

“Excellent deduction,” Sherlock muttered wryly.

John locked his jaw and stared ahead.

“John - ” Sherlock started.

“No, no, it’s not my place.”

“Don’t be passive-aggressive, that is so annoying,” Sherlock said. And then realised that that might not have been particularly apt. But John’s mouth twitched before snapping back into a thin line.

“I’m going to have to apologise, aren't I?”

John hummed. “Not really your forte, apologising.”

“I – I slipped up, as you’d put it. I don't know why you care, anyway. It doesn't affect you.”

“I just don’t know how you can just – it’s a waste, you know?”

Sherlock thought for a moment. “What?”

“Look, let’s not talk about this, yeah?” John relaxed his shoulders. “Sounds like we've both had a pretty unpleasant day, so let’s just enjoy Halloween.”

Sherlock nodded and tried to put the way John’s face fell out of his mind.

***

“Well, you’re finally getting your pizza,” John quipped as he put the phone down. Sherlock was perched on the edge on John’s sofa, not looking entirely comfortable. “You okay?”

“I’m in your home,” Sherlock stated, brows drawn together.

John laughed. “Yeah? You’ve been here before – you slept in my bed, if you remember.”

“Yes, but I wasn’t entirely…” Sherlock waved a hand at head-level.

“In your right mind?”

“Look, they’re finishing each other’s sentences!” Harry squealed from the doorway.

John groaned. “Harry, for fuck’s sake - ” he began, but was cut short as the front door opened.

Sherlock watched as John and Harry caught each other’s eyes across the room, faces frozen in an almost comedic mask of fear. Almost. It would have been comedic if Sherlock hadn’t been sitting right in front of them, watching them withdraw into themselves as their mother entered their home.

Harry silently darted into the room and sat on the sofa beside Sherlock as the door closed behind Mrs Watson.

John closed his eyes as his mother began walking heavily down the corridor. She walked straight past the door of the lounge, not even glancing inside.

There was clattering in the kitchen. The silence underneath it stretched, pulled taught.

Sherlock focused his hearing. It helped that John’s house was small and the walls were rice-paper thin. The slight suction of the fridge being opened, then closed with a little too much force. Shuffling. Something small and metallic falling to the floor. The gulping of liquid leaving a bottle. Glass on plastic. Footsteps.

Mrs Watson passed the door to the living room, again not paying any attention to her children. Six eyes followed the feet up the stairs until they disappeared from sight. A door closing, pushed with intent.

Harry cleared her throat and stood. “I think I’m going to go to Clara’s. Get ready for tonight,” she said to John.

“Are you sure that’s a good – ?”

“Her dad’s out. Abby and Tyler are going to be there too.”

“Okay.” John smiled with his mouth. Sherlock wondered what the story behind that exchange was. “See you later,”

“Yeah, have a nice time interacting with little kids,” Harry threw over her shoulder.

John shifted his weight from one foot to the other as his sister trod the floor above their heads.

 “Pumpkin?”

Sherlock frowned. “Was that a pet name?”

John opened his mouth in confusion. “I – no, I – ” he laughed. “I wasn’t calling you pumpkin,” he shook his head. “I meant we should go and carve the pumpkin now - you know, all hallows eve and all that?

“Oh,” Sherlock stood up and straightened his shirt. “Right.”

John and Sherlock went into the kitchen. Despite the lingering smile resting on John’s face, Sherlock noticed that he was treading lightly on the sticky linoleum flooring, eyes flicking to the ceiling – doesn’t want to draw attention to himself, still cautious of angering his mother.

Resting on some kitchen roll in the centre of the table was a pumpkin, lumpy and a little earthy on one side.  Next to the microwave lay John’s sketchpad, tossed carelessly to the side as if John had been distracted by something. An open nearly-empty bottle of red wine sat on the countertop, the metal cap on its side on the floor – has been opened twice - no; three times today, the cork long discarded. John picked this up and screwed it back on the bottle. He faced away from Sherlock with the wine in his hand. His shoulders were hard beneath his woollen jumper. After a moment of pause, he opened the door that led into the tiny garden, opened the bottle, poured the liquid onto the damp grass and dumped the empty glass vessel in the bin.

John turned back around. Sherlock was standing in the interior doorway. Neither said anything. John thought about what he’d just done.

“Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea,” John said.

“Perhaps.” Sherlock moved into the room. “Though I don’t think she’ll notice.”

John knew he was lying but tried to believe him anyway. “Ever done this before?”

“It can’t be much different from a dissection,” Sherlock copied John’s lead and began rolling up his sleeves.

John laughed shortly. “More like scooping a brain out of a skull.”

“Oh, okay, that’s easy, no precision involved,” Sherlock said dismissively. “Although Mycroft did make me stop doing it a few years ago, so I may be a little out of practise.”

John raised his eyebrows. “I can't tell if you're joking.”

As John was locating a suitable spoon, Harry came downstairs and poked her head into the kitchen, carrying a large overnight bag in the crux of her elbow.

“You off?” John asked.

Harry nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. Bye, Sherlock.”

“Go for the second shade of red,” Sherlock replied.

Harry looked confused for a second, then touched a finger to her mouth. “Of – "

“Lipstick, yes.”

“…Okay, then. Thanks, I guess.”

“Harry?” John called as his sister began to walk away. “Not too much alcohol, yeah? Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Whatever,” she grinned, spinning around and walking out of the room. A moment later the front door opened and shut, and she was gone.

John smiled at Sherlock. “Shall we?”

***

Some time later, Sherlock and John stood around the kitchen table flicking their hands to try and rid them of the strings of pumpkin innards sticking to their skin.

“I feel like we just murdered someone,” John commented, surveying the carnage before him. The table top was covered in slimy seeds, bright orange flesh, a large kitchen knife and two spoons, and everything was glistening rather unpleasantly. “Probably should have put down some newspaper.

“Probably,” Sherlock agreed.

“Oh, well – “ John stopped, halted by thuds directly above them – Mrs Watson’s bedroom. She was moving about. “We should clear up.”

“She won’t come down for another – ” Sherlock began, but noticed the look on John’s face. “Uh, yes, let’s clear up, that’s probably best.”

John placed the bin by the table and they scooped the insides of the pumpkin into it. It was just as well, as Sherlock, with a stab of annoyance at being wrong, heard Mrs Watson descend the stairs not thirty seconds after the table had been cleared.

Her footsteps were heavy on the stairs. John stood very still. He had not improved his skills of ‘acting natural’ since the time they’d stolen all of those art supplies. Sherlock didn’t bother with pretending, as he knew she’d turn left at the foot of the stairs, heading towards the front door, away from the kitchen.

“I’ll be back late,” she said.

John didn’t reply. His mother left the house, the door closing solidly behind her.

Sherlock studied John. He was breathing shallowly, jaw set, weight on his left leg. He made a conscious decision to relax under Sherlock’s gaze, and explained, “She’s got a work do tonight. Probably won’t come home at all. Stay over at her sleazy boyfriend’s,” John’s face distorted as he pronounced the last word.

“That’s what the fight was about,” Sherlock said, more of a statement than a question.

John neither confirmed nor denied it, but Sherlock knew he was right, and tried not to over-analyse the lack of his usual post-deduction satisfaction.

After a moment, John resumed, brightness forced, “I didn’t invite you over so we could mope, let’s – "

“Why did you invite me?”

John’s brow furrowed as if it was obvious. “Because I have to spend the night answering the door to small children, and I thought it’d be less boring if someone else was here to keep me company.”

“You could have asked one of your old friends,” Sherlock pointed out.

“They’re - I don’t think they’d be too interested. Why do you ask, am I inconveniencing you?”

“Well, I was in the middle of an experiment – "

“Oh, for fu- "

“ – but one must leave the cultures for forty-eight hours before the results can be gathered, so no; it is not an inconvenience. Rather good timing, actually.”

John shook his head. He’s always doing that, Sherlock observed to himself. That or sighing.

“…Right,” John responded, a little bemused. He put both hands flat on the table and considered the hollow pumpkin in front of him. “What kind of a face shall we give him?”

“Vegetables have no concept of gender, John.”

“Yes, okay,” John said, amused. “What kind of face shall we give it?”

Sherlock stood next to John. “Make it look like the King,”

John turned to him, grinning. “You know we don’t have a king.”

“Don’t… don’t we?”

John laughed and went over to the radio on the windowsill. “No,” he pulled out the aerial. “Not until good old Liz kicks the bucket,” he mused, pressing a button.

Sherlock’s eye was caught by John straightening up, face open in surprise as the radio static faded into an obnoxious song that he seemed to recognise.

“Oh my god,” he giggled. He started swinging his arms and stamping his sock-clad feet in quite an alarming manner.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock asked. “That is a little disturbing, John,”

John stopped those movements – thank god – and collapsed into laughter. “It’s Michael Jackson, you can’t not.”

“Who?” Sherlock felt mildly disconcerted, as if he was missing something.

John stopped and looked at him, aghast. “Michael Jackson,” he repeated. No reaction. “Jesus, Sherlock, this is unacceptable.”

“He can’t be that important if I haven’t heard of him,” Sherlock reasoned.

“Oh, shut up, you pompous git.”

They went back to studying the pumpkin.

“Holy shit – “ John burst into laughter, making Sherlock jump a little.

“What?”

John tried to stop laughing, but couldn’t. Sherlock rolled his eyes.

“I’m just going to go get something, I’ll explain in a sec,” John wheezed, leaving the room. He was going up the stairs two at a time, by the sound of it.

When he came back, Sherlock heard him put some things on the counter behind him, and then approach him. He laid a permanent marker on the table next to Sherlock, who was frowning at the pumpkin.

“I worked out what it should look like,” John started, traces of laughter distorting his speech.

“And?”

John cleared his throat and said with great precision, “Punk-kin.”

Sherlock looked at him. John’s face was stretched from the effort of not laughing. “Punk… kin,” Sherlock repeated slowly.

John nodded, grinning. “We should make the pumpkin look like a punk…”

“Because then it’d be a…” Sherlock looked at John disapprovingly.

“Oh, come on, it was vaguely funny.”

Sherlock raised his eyebrows.

“I’ll do the drawing, then,” John huffed, uncapping the marker and getting to work.

Sherlock watched him, saw the same concentration on his face, the same undivided focus as when he was studying, or healing, or untangling Sherlock’s headphones because Sherlock himself failed to see what the problem was.

John finished swiftly, smiling and stepping aside. The pumpkin looked a little strange, lines and circles all over it. Sherlock was handed a smaller knife than the one they had used to cut the top of the pumpkin off earlier. He held it limply in his hand, not quite sure what to do with it.

“Well, go on, then,” John encouraged.

“So… I just…” Sherlock plunged the knife into the gourd.

John bustled him out of the way in order to demonstrate. He grasped the handle firmly and cut neatly along one of the think, black lines. “Like that,” he finished, yanking the knife free and giving it back to Sherlock.

While Sherlock struggled with carving the pumpkin – “This isn’t fun, this is manual labour, John” – John sat on the counter behind him with the cranium of the pumpkin in his lap, pouring his sister’s glow-in-the-dark nail varnish onto an old paint brush and coating the stem with it.

Sherlock straightened up, trying to hide his exertion, turning to John. “What are you doing?”

“Making his mohican more visible.”

“And the pins?”

Sherlock was referring to a pile of push pins on the counter that John had also brought downstairs.

“I’m going to do those, too – piercings,” John explained.

Sherlock went back to the pumpkin.

John finished painting the stem and the heads of the pins, using up a good handful of the small bottles of nail varnish in the process. He had no idea why Harry had so many – something to do with her and Clara and a meticulously planned practical joke that never came to be. He felt a little light-headed from the fumes, but Sherlock didn’t seem to have noticed how noxious the air had become – he’s probably used to a lot worse than this, John reminded himself.

He hopped down off the counter and opened the window, and the radio presenter’s rapid babbling was muffled beneath the drumming rain that had started up again.

Sherlock was nowhere near being finished. John would have asked if he wanted any help, but knowing Sherlock, his roommate would probably be offended that he’d asked. So he returned to his place on the counter, careful not to disturb the pins. His sketchpad was lying next to the microwave, left there and forgotten about when the shouting had started that morning. He reached out and pulled it towards him by the pads of his fingers and flipped it open to what he’d been working on earlier.

He had reluctantly let his therapist flick through his drawings on his last visit. She had nodded and made approving sounds every now and again, and had questioned whether this was becoming more of a visual diary than a record of how he was feeling, and he had pointed out how the two things were barely indistinguishable from each other, and she had given it back to him. What she had said was true, to some extent; as he looked back over the pages since he’d started at Bart’s, certain events did jump out at him. There was the tube of paint he’d thrown at Sherlock, there were the studs of his army boot caked in mud – that hadn’t been a good day. Sherlock’s violin, after his panic attack; the school crest on the day that he’d played his first rugby match – they’d lost, but respectably. John smiled at the memory of Mike doing a spectacular double forward roll as he tripped over one of the other players – they still hadn’t let him live that down.

If he flipped back even further, to the summer and beyond, the drawings were less coherent, mainly consisting of shadows and smudges and shapes, nothing solid. His therapist had said that doing these drawings every damn day would help him to develop the ability to look at his emotions objectively, to unpick them and to work through them in a healthy way. The wording was cringe-worthy to him, but John had to admit to himself that there might have been something in it. He had certainly felt more stable over the last couple of months, so maybe it had, finally, been paying off. But that could have just been attributed to the change of scenery, the lack of opportunities to trap himself inside his own head – or simply the progression of time as it did its thing.

The unfinished drawing from that morning was going to be a pun of some sort; he had been listening to the news while making breakfast, so he had been doodling ‘BREAKING NEWS’ in block letters across the top of the page. He usually tried to avoid words in his drawings, as he felt that they looked clumsy – or that could just have been a projection of how he felt about his own ability to use them correctly.

He looked up at his roommate, still bent over the pumpkin. He looked a little ridiculous, slaving away in a dress shirt tucked into his jeans – why does he always wear those shirts? Does he not own any other clothes?

Breaking news; Sherlock Holmes carves a pumpkin.

Breaking news; Sherlock Holmes willingly takes part in an inane tradition.

Breaking news; Sherlock Holmes does not turn into a serial killer when handed a knife, contrary to popular belief.

With wobbly lines, John tracked the folds of Sherlock’s shirt where he stood half-bent over in a position that would surely make his back ache soon. He couldn’t quite get the angle of Sherlock’s right arm as he kept moving it as he sawed into pumpkin. Before it could begin to annoy him, however, the doorbell rang.

***

John’s stomach growled its appreciation as he closed the door on the delivery man. He inhaled deeply, sighed happily, and made his way back into the kitchen.

Sherlock was chipping away at a small piece of flesh, and didn’t show any response to the waft of grease and cheese when John slid the boxes onto the table next to him. John waited for him to do so, but realised he’d be better off waiting for the sun to implode. At least that event was guaranteed to occur.

His stomach rumbled again, and Sherlock straightened up again, flexing his back. “Not eaten today?” he remarked.

“Didn’t feel like it.”

In truth, John could never eat when his family was fighting. His throat would barely admit oxygen, let alone anything solid.

Sherlock hummed as if John had just said that aloud.

John, in order to change the subject, properly took in the pumpkin, the carving now completed.

“Oh, wow, Sherlock, the pumpkin looks great,” he smiled, moving to run a finger over the inside of the holes. “Not jagged or anything.”

Sherlock smiled in that way he sometimes did when John complimented him, like he wasn’t sure if it had really happened or not, and whether he should allow himself to be pleased by it.

John scooped up the now-dry pins and pumpkin top, settling the latter into place and giving half the pins to Sherlock. John pushed the pins into the flesh where he had made small dots earlier, Sherlock doing the same. His roommate was still occupied thus when John spotted the yellow disposable camera on the counter to his right.

He breathed a laugh as he reached for it, an idea popping into his head.

“What?” Sherlock asked, carefully inserting the last pin. John thumbed the ridged dial gently – the film didn’t need to be wound. Perfect.

“What, John?” Sherlock repeated, turning around. “What are you – ?"

John leaned closer to Sherlock, whipped the camera from behind his back, held it aloft, pulled a face and clicked the shutter. Sherlock was definitely in the frame, hopefully with his mouth half-open in the middle of his sentence. John laughed, winding the dial. Sherlock still looked slightly panicked.

“Why did you do that?”

“Got to use up the film somehow. Will you get a tea-light from that cupboard?” he asked, pointing.

While Sherlock did so, John fetched a box of matches. Sherlock dropped the tiny candle into the pumpkin’s cavity, and John lit the wick in a small flare of light. He blew out the match and closed the door before turning off the lights.

The room was dipped in darkness, the sun having set long ago, leaving the sky outside the window a dark but intense blue.

John inhaled. “Will you look at that.”

“Not bad,” Sherlock’s voice rumbled next to him.

The pumpkin had a sneer and semi-circular eyes that weren’t all that friendly-looking. It had just-recognisable ears, the lobes and helices ‘pierced’ with glowing pin-heads, as was the triangular nose. The stem also glowed softly, and although it wasn’t necessarily immediately identifiable as a punk pumpkin, it would surely be evident once it had been explained, john reasoned to himself. Right?

John flicked the lights back on and opened the boxes of pizza. “Help yourself,” he said, picking up the pumpkin. “There’s coke in the fridge and water in the tap.”

He left Sherlock in his kitchen and positioned the vegetable on his front step, the rain having dissipated to a light drizzle. When he returned, Sherlock was still standing in the middle of the room as he’d left him.

“You’re bloody useless, you are,” he sighed, fetching two glasses from a cupboard. “What do you want to drink?”

***

The doorbell rang for the first time that evening when John was polishing off the last slice of pizza.

“Oh, shit,” he mumbled thickly, his mouth full. He scrambled to his feet. “Where are the sweets?” He swallowed prematurely, making his throat hurt, and ran into the kitchen. They were nowhere to be found, and he became more and more frantic until –

“John,” Sherlock called from the living room. “They’re in here.”

“Thank you, thank you, fucking hell,” John said as he jogged back into the room. “Wait, we’re not dressed up at all,” he grabbed the party-size tub of seasonally-themed Haribos and chocolates.

“Is that necessary?” Sherlock asked, following him into the corridor. “And ‘we’?”

“It’s nicer, and yes,” John answered over his shoulder before opening the door.

He crouched down to the level of three little boys, all no more than six years old – a mummy, a ghost and a vampire, out early because of their youth.

“Trick or treat!” they chimed, and John laughed. Their parents hovered in the background, smiling.

“Happy Halloween!” he grinned. “What scary little monsters you are!”

The kids giggled and pounced upon the proffered tub, small hands grabbing at the sweets.

“Take one,” a parent reminded. “And say thank you.”

The boys guiltily withdrew their hands and thanked John, who straightened up as the party retreated back down the path.

“That was odd,” Sherlock said as they moved back inside. “Do you have to do that every time?”

“I suppose it is a tad strange,” John agreed, thinking. “But we really do need to dress up, just a little bit.” Sherlock looked pained at the thought. “It’s fun, don’t be an arse.” John put a hand on Sherlock’s back and pushed him firmly towards the stairs. “I think we have a few decorations and stuff in the loft,” he explained as they ascended.

***

John walked into his bedroom with a box of Halloween things in his arms to find it empty. “Sherlock?”

“In here,” his friend replied from his mother’s bedroom. John stood in the doorway.

“What are you doing?”

Sherlock stood up, holding a round mirror on a bendable stand in one hand and various cosmetic products in the other. “The mirror is your mother’s, the make-up is Harry’s.”

“Right.” John didn’t question why Sherlock was holding his sister’s foundation, because he was sure he’d get an explanation soon enough.

Which he did. They went downstairs and John got to work putting stickers on the living room windows, skulls and ghouls and broomsticks that would be visible from the road. He hung two cardboard skeletons with adjustable limbs either side of the front door and Blu-tacked some tape that was printed with the words ‘HAUNTED HOUSE - DO NOT ENTER’ in a big cross on the door itself.

He returned to the living room to find Sherlock sitting on the floor applying eyeliner to himself in the borrowed mirror.

“Uh, Sherlock?”

“Mmmm?”

“What are you doing?”

“Your observational powers are worse than I’d feared.”

“Don’t give me cheek. You know what I meant.”

Sherlock applied a few more strokes and, after eyeing his work for a second and approving it as satisfactory, turned to John. “I noticed that there is an eye patch in that box – “ he pointed to the one John had brought down from the attic. “ – and so I decided to be a pirate, if you are still insisting on this dressing up business.”

“And pirates wear eyeliner,” John supplied sceptically.

Sherlock shrugged. “They seem to, in a modern Hollywood tradition probably originating from Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the fictional – ”

“All right! I didn’t ask for an essay on it,” John interrupted, rummaging through the box to find something for himself. "Hang on," he said as what Sherlock had just said caught up with him. “You’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean but you've never heard of Michael Jackson?”

“I used to want to be a pirate when I was younger,” Sherlock said, going to sit cross-legged on the sofa. “Around the time the first film came out coincided with the zenith of my piratical obsessions, so I convinced Mrs Hudson to take me to see it at the cinema.”

John listened to his roommate attentively. Sherlock rarely talked about his life before John met him, and therefore when he was in the mood to do so, John wouldn’t have stopped him for the world. But it seemed that at this juncture, Sherlock had nothing more to say, so John held up a plastic headband with bolts on either side above the ears, so that the wearer would look like Frankenstein’s monster.

“What do you think?” he asked, donning the thing and peering at himself in his mother’s mirror.

Sherlock cocked his head. “Plausible, although it would be better if – ”

The doorbell rang again. “Hold that thought,” John said, getting up.

***

“What were you saying?” John resumed after having closed the door on a group of excitable ten year olds.

“That perhaps your, um, costume, if you can call it that – "

“Oi!“

“ – could be improved with some make-up,” Sherlock finished.

They sat on the sofa, John unconvinced. “What kind of make-up?”

Sherlock pulled out his phone. “Like…” he tapped and scrolled and tapped some more, finally holding it out so John could see the screen, “… this.”

The screen showed a stock photo of a child with his face painted green with sunken eyes and stitching. He considered the picture. “I’m not letting you paint my face green.”

“With your limited supplies, I wouldn’t be able to if I wanted to,” Sherlock said. “I mean the stitches specifically.”

John looked at the photo again, then at Sherlock, and was that - ? Were those eyes… hopeful? Maybe even a little sad, he looked just like a – a – a puppy. Yes. A motherfucking puppy. For god’s sake, John berated himself. Sherlock Holmes just pulled puppy-dog eyes on you, you gullible sod. And it bloody worked.

And that was how John found himself sitting on his living room floor having his face drawn on by his roommate.

Sherlock’s hands were warmer than he’d expected where they rested lightly on his skin, the eye pencil dragging across his temple. John’s field of vision was crammed with Sherlock’s face, his eyes a serious green that night, made bold and vivid by the precise black lining he had given them.

“Stop fidgeting,” he chastised.

“I’m trying,” John countered. “I’m not used to having stuff on my face.”

“That’s a fatal omission on your part,” Sherlock replied, drawing a few more lines before sitting back on his heels to consider his progress. When John moved a hand up to scratch at his cheek, Sherlock batted it away sharply, reprimanding, “Don’t smudge my masterpiece.”

“So how come you’re so good at make-up?” John queried as Sherlock opened a small pot of something dark and rubbed a make-up sponge in it.

“Essential skill for disguising oneself effectively,” Sherlock replied, moving back into John’s space and tilting his head up with a gentle push. “Close your eyes and stay still.”

“Fine,” John grumbled, and did as he was asked. He felt his shoulders bunch up and tried to make himself relax, despite that not knowing where or when Sherlock was going to touch him was making him a little uncomfortable. When the touch came, it was soft, and good thing, because John flinched a little from surprise as Sherlock smoothed the sponge beneath John’s eyes. A myriad of colours swirled across his vision as Sherlock swiped the cool pad firmly over John’s closed eyelids, then cheeks, and hummed.

“Good,” he heard Sherlock say to himself, and John opened an eye tentatively, lest Sherlock get annoyed. But Sherlock had rocked back onto his feet again and did not get annoyed, so John opened the other one.

“Done?”

“I think so,” Sherlock said, reaching behind him and bringing forward the mirror for John.

John scrutinised his face. Sherlock had drawn a line of stitches in eye pencil across his forehead and had given him dark bags beneath his eyes and made them sink back in his face. His cheekbones had been emphasised a little with something John suspected was eye shadow.

Over the rim of the mirror Sherlock awaited a verdict on his work.

“Thank you, Sherlock, it’s really good,” John said politely.

Sherlock looked at him and narrowed his eyes. “Mmmm, no it’s not,” he put the mirror down. “At least, you don’t think so.”

“No, I do,” John insisted, “it’s just a bit… more than I expected.”

Sherlock said nothing, but gathered up the cosmetics spread over the floor. “Oh, come on, don’t get sulky with me.”

“Sulky? I’m not sulky.”

John snorted an incredulous laugh and opened his mouth to say something but before he could, the doorbell rang. He didn’t really want to argue with his roommate, so he let the matter drop and got up.

“Got your eye patch?” he asked, settling his ‘bolts’ on his own head.

Sherlock looked up at him from the floor, a little confused. After a moment, he stood up and picked up the eye patch from the sofa, putting it on.

John studied him for a moment. “You look too put-together to be a pirate,” he said. “Untuck your shirt and muss up your hair a little.”

Sherlock did as he was told. “There we go,” John said. “Come on then, Captain.”

***

Over the next couple of hours, Sherlock stood behind John and watched as he effortlessly performed the menial task his mother had assigned to him. Even when a group of pre-teens had threatened to egg his house, John had swiftly diffused the situation – without bribery, no less. It was impressive, Sherlock was not afraid to admit that. John was tirelessly cheerful and affable with each and every ring of the doorbell, not slipping into irritation as Sherlock would have done hours ago.

He would have been perfectly content to stand in the corridor and be a passive spectator the entire night, but that would have been too perfect.

“Trick or treat!”

Seven to eight years old, go to same primary school, parent in the background is mother of tallest one who is the alpha of the pack.

John crouched to their level and laughed, skilfully avoiding making the action patronising. “Wow, you are some of the scariest witches I’ve ever seen.”

The girls at the door giggled. The one at the front of the group waved her wand and threatened, “We’ll turn your house into a tomato if you don’t give us all your sweets!”

Her friends copied her, growling. Sherlock could feel a smile tugging at his mouth, chastised himself for being irrational, and recited the periodic table of elements in alphabetical order in his head in order to focus.

…darmstadtium, dubnium, dysprosium, einsteinium, erbium, fermium, fluorine

One girl caught Sherlock’s eye. She was looking at him with a face of pure terror. Not taking her eyes off him, she leaned over to the girl in front and whispered, “Habiba, there’s a pirate.”

Habiba, the ‘alpha’, looked over John’s shoulder and her eyes locked onto Sherlock’s legs. They travelled upwards, widening as they reached his face. The other two girls caught on and did the same, looking just as horrified.

Habiba took a step towards John and whispered, “Are you being held hostage?”

John looked back at Sherlock and then back to the girl. He nodded and the girls gasped. “Can I tell you a secret?”

The girls nodded vigorously, leaning in close. “I killed his parrot,” John stage-whispered. “He was going to feed me to the sea monster he keeps in the bathtub as punishment but I managed to convince him to make me do this instead.”

“That’s terrible,” Habiba whispered.

“It is,” John agreed. “But I’ll be fine. Here, take some sweets to keep your magic levels topped up.” The girls took the chocolate, still stealing petrified glances at Sherlock, who crossed his arms and tried to look as scary as possible. John would disapprove if he didn’t play along.

“Don’t worry,” Habiba told John. “We’ll kill him for you!” She and the other girls raised their wands and Sherlock very nearly panicked. They pointed them at Sherlock and Habiba shouted “Avada Kedavra!”

John looked back at Sherlock, waiting for him to do something. He supposed he was going to have to. John probably thought it to be important, for whatever reason, and Sherlock was relying on him for a place to sleep that night.

He uncrossed his arms and clutched at his throat, making choking sounds and slowly sinking to his knees. One hand scrabbled at the wall to his left while the other reached dramatically out towards the girls. “Damn… you…” he croaked before falling onto his back and ‘dying’.

He heard the girls shriek with joy and John laughing and shouting, “Thank you! I’m free! Thank you!”

The parent told them to ‘come along’ and the girls said goodbye.

“Goodbye! Thank you!” John shouted as the sound of footsteps faded down the path. Sherlock waited until he heard the door close before opening his eyes and sitting up.

John looked at him, sprawled on his back on the floor, and giggled once in surprise, before leaning back against the door and tipping his head back and laughing and laughing and laughing, and Sherlock would be damned if he didn’t join in.

John’s laughter subsided into chuckles and he straightened up. “Christ almighty, that was amazing. I wasn’t expecting you to do anything,” he walked over to Sherlock and stuck out his hand. The ‘pirate’ took it and John pulled him to his feet, grinning at him. “You made those little girls’ night, you know that?”

Sherlock shrugged, unsure of what to say. John slapped him on the back and walked past him back into the living room. Sherlock grinned inwardly and followed.

***

“This is so undignified, John – “

“I don’t give a shit,” John laughed. “Copy me, okay?”

“Do I have - ”

“Yes! One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, yeah? Like that.” John swung his arms and stamped his feet in time with the numerical chant and Sherlock reluctantly copied. “No, no, no, put a bit of elbow grease in, man!”

“Why should I?”

John imitated him, voice high and reedy – “Why should I? I’m Sherlock Holmes and I wear proper shirts all the time and I’m far too important to get my head out of my own arse and do something fun for once in my superior-in-every-way life.”

“Really mature, John,” Sherlock commented.

“Really mature, John,” John copied.

“John, I swear to god – ”

“John, I swear to god – ”

“John!”

“John!”

“You are such…”

“I’m such a what, Sherlock? Go on, I’m interested now.”

“You’re a such a dick, that’s what.”

“Ooooh, Sherlock said a bad word!”

“Why do I even bother...”

“Back to Thriller,” John clapped his hands once and pressed play on the video on his laptop. Michael Jackson’s voice filtered out of the low-quality speakers, John singing along.

“Do you have to sing, John?”

John sang louder. “’CAUSE THIS IS THRILLER, THRILLER NIGHT – do the actions, Sherlock!”

Sherlock rolled his eyes, so John grabbed his arms and swung them back and forth until Sherlock did it himself.

“One, two, three, four, one, two, three – come on, Sherlock, don’t be so fucking boring!”

“If it’ll get you to stop being so obnoxious,” Sherlock muttered, before throwing himself into the iconic dance with so much zeal that John thought he might knock something over.

“That’s more like it!” John laughed. “But you do look bloody ridiculous.”

Sherlock stopped. “No more than you do.”

The doorbell rang.

“Bit late, don’t you think?” John wondered aloud, checking his watch. He and Sherlock went to the door anyway, residual laughter painted across their faces.

Their smiles were wiped away when John opened the door.

“Trick or treat, Johnny-boy.” The boy heading the group of teenagers at the Watsons’ door removed an Anonymous mask to reveal a familiar face John was hoping to avoid.

“Dan,” John said. “Kai, Toby, Pete – happy Halloween.”

“You’re not answering your texts, John,” started Kai.

“I can’t find my phone, sorry,” John lied.

“No problem, mate,” Dan said, catching sight of Sherlock. “Who’s this?”

“Oh, this is Sherlock,” John explained. “Friend from school.”

“Sherlock, eh?” Dan repeated, smirking a little. He raised his eyebrows. “Anyway, we were just on our way over to Mary’s, for the party?”

“Shit, was that tonight?” John asked. He was fully aware that it had been that night.

“Yeah,” Toby replied. “We were just passing and thought we’d see if you wanted to come with.”

“I don’t know,” John said.

“We ain’t seen you in ages, mate, come on.”

“Yeah, we miss you, man, it’ll be just like old times,” Pete added. “And Sherlock can come too if he wants.”

“Oh, it’s not really his thing, and my mum’ll screw if I leave the house.”

“Don’t be a pussy, John,” Pete teased. “I’m sure Mary’d be pleased to see you after all this time.”

The group laughed.

“Come on, you know it’s not like that anymore.”

“Getting defensive, Johnny, not a good sign.”

“Leave it,” John cautioned.

“All right, sorry, mate,” Dan said genuinely. “It’d be cool if you came out with us, though. We have missed you.”

“Look, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to stay home tonight,” John apologised. “We’ll meet up another time, yeah?”

“All right, John, if you say so,” Dan responded with a sad smile.

They were just about to leave when Pete added, “Oh, by the way, you don’t have any booze we could borrow, do you?”

“Oh, no, not really, sorry,” John replied, anxious to end the conversation. Then he thought more carefully. “Actually, on second thoughts, come in.”

After emptying half of his family’s alcohol supply into his friends’ arms, John finally shut the front door on them and they left with profuse and enthusiastic thanks.

John sighed with relief and apologised to Sherlock. “They’re a bit… “

“Crass? Misogynistic? Budding alcoholics?”

“I didn't want to be the one to say it.”

The two moved into the living room again, but John was in no mood to dance anymore. He flopped onto the sofa, Sherlock joining him. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re great friends when you’re in the mood for them, but they’re kind of… fair weather people.” Sherlock hummed, for once willing to listen, it seemed. “They don’t know about how dad died, just that he did, and – “

I don’t know about how your father died,” Sherlock reminded him.

“Yes, but… yes. Okay. Fine. You win, I’ll tell you,” Sherlock leaned forward. “Don’t look so interested, this is my dad’s untimely end we’re talking about here.”

“And?”

“You’re ruining the moment, Sherlock, have a bit of tact.”

Sherlock re-arranged his expression from gossipy villager to sympathetic friend, and John continued.

“It was a car crash. Boring, huh? It was my sixteenth, as you’ve probably worked out, and we were having a bit of a family get-together down at my grandparents’. Dad handed me my ceremonial ‘first’ beer and took me outside like something was important. I asked him what he wanted, because there was nothing out there except his old Ford Fiesta and the rest of my relatives’ cars and it was cold and I wasn’t wearing any shoes. Then he swept his arm towards his car and said,

“‘Seeing as you can take your test in a year, I thought now would be a good time to start to teach you to drive.’

“And I said, ‘Now now? Like, right this second?’

“He nodded and we went back inside and I told everyone because I was really excited and everyone wished me luck. So I slipped my shoes on without doing the laces and jumped in. He sat next to me, of course, and I strapped myself in and so did he and he smiled and said that I was a natural already and I told him to shut up and tell me what to do because I was really fucking excited.

“He told me what was what and how to do everything and I kept saying, ‘Yeah, I know, dad,’ because I thought I did. And I kind of did – like, I knew what the gear stick was and what most of the dials on the dashboard did, but I was being arrogant because, as I may have mentioned, I was really, really fucking excited.

“It was about ten at night, so I flicked on the head lights and I watched the flies in them for a second. Then dad asked me if I was ready, and I said ‘Hell fucking yeah,’ and he didn’t tell me off for swearing because he never did, that was only mum.

“So I very gently let the clutch up and got impatient when it didn’t do anything, so I let up quicker and the car jumped and stalled and I might have screamed a little. Dad laughed at me and I laughed at me and then everyone was laughing at me because they’d all come out of the house to watch.

“So I tried again, a little more calmly this time, and we crunched forward on the gravel and everyone cheered and I was on such a high, Sherlock. God, it was good. I got more and more confident and in no time, I was driving in circles round the tree in the middle of the drive and feeling like the king of the universe.

“Everyone on the porch kept shouting ‘Go on the lane! Go on the lane!’ and dad asked me if I wanted to and I shouted ‘HELL FUCKING YEAH’ because I was really fucking excited and mum yelled at me from the porch because she heard. Dad laughed and said ‘All right then, John, when you’re ready, just ease out and the road is yours.’

“Damn right the road was mine. It was actually kind of terrifying, leaving the house behind – my grandparents live in the middle of nowhere, so the night was completely and committedly black. No streetlights, no houses in the distance, only the orange glow of a town far away on the horizon. I could see the light of the house in the wing mirror still, but it was getting smaller by the second and soon it was gone.

“But my dad put radio four on and I settled down a bit and loosened my grip on the steering wheel. Once I stopped wobbling the car all over the shop, dad asked me if I wanted to go a bit faster and so I did, just a little, and a little, and a little, until we were going at a good solid thirty-five miles an hour.

“I turned onto another lane and then everything was beautiful. We’d just emerged from a tunnel of trees and the sky was gorgeous. I mean really. There’s no light pollution down there, so the stars looked like someone had spilt them by accident, not placed them carefully like at home. It was nearly a full moon, and I remember being slightly frustrated that it wasn’t. Like, wouldn’t that have just been the icing on the cake? But I felt amazing despite the lack of werewolves.

“I looked over at dad and grinned, and my god did he grin back. And then everything slowed down.

“It’s funny how, in movies, they play the action bits in slow-mo, and you think, oh, that’s a nice cinematic device to get the audience to appreciate the significance of the moment, but they get it spot on. Because just then, I saw every detail and I knew its repercussions and consequences but my body just wouldn’t respond.

“The side of dad’s face was lit up and he turned to see what by, still smiling, and I remember each muscle in his face going slack and then tightening into something terrified and terrifying.

“I looked back at the road and there was a pair of headlights rushing at us and dad was shouting at me to turn, for fuck’s sake, turn, and I just sat there. He leant over and tried to turn the wheel himself but the other car was too close and I could hear it’s engines and see the other driver, and they were trying to swerve as well but it was too late and I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’

“The crash didn’t hurt. It was… so full of sound. The metal colliding and splitting and wrenching apart and grinding and screeching and then it just stopped and everything was stationary. Dad was screaming. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a human scream, properly, but it was so primal and tore at a part of me that lay buried by thousands of years of evolution, and it hurt more than I thought I was capable of being hurt without dying.

“The other car had mainly hit the passenger side of ours, and I couldn’t feel any pain at all at that point – epinephrine and all that – so I tried to get dad out of his seat but it took me a while to realise that I was still strapped in. So I undid my seat belt and it was a little difficult to get my legs out of the foot space because it was crushed up, but not enough to hurt me more than a great gash down my leg. I unclipped dad and got him under the arms and tried to lift him out, but he just kept screaming and that was my - ” John's voice wavered " - my dad, screaming like an animal. He told me he couldn’t... he couldn’t feel his legs and something clicked and it hit me for real. It had all seemed a bit surreal before, but then I panicked. I got out of the car and ran around to the front, because the other car was wedged tight against the passenger side of ours, blocking dad’s door. I scrambled up onto the bonnet and all I could think was ‘spinal cord, spinal cord, spinal cord’. Needless to say, the windscreen was smashed in, the cracks splintering out in a crystalline spider web. I kicked at the glass with the soles of my not-tied-up shoes until there was a sizable hole in the centre. And then I did something very, very stupid. I tried to reach through the glass and haul dad out that way, but I hadn’t made the hole quite big enough yet, and I got stuck with my upper torso in the car. When I wriggled to try and get free, I pushed my left shoulder onto a huge shard of glass and it dug right in. I managed to get free, but now I couldn’t use my left arm properly and so getting dad out wasn’t a viable option. I was sitting on the bonnet and trying not to cry when I thought of the other driver.

“It was an elderly man, maybe late sixties, and he was dead. His eyes were still open. Later on I found out that he’d died instantly on impact. Snapped his neck.

“I phoned nine-nine-nine and I had to tell the woman that I was sitting on a car bonnet with a dead man on my right and a dying man in front of me. She kept calling me ‘sir’ and I kept wanting to correct her because I was just a kid and I didn’t know what to do and now I was responsible for the death of two people and I’d only just got my national security number and those little symbols sure as hell didn’t spell out ‘sir’ and… sorry,”

John blinked. His eyes stung and there was a lump of words in his throat that had been tangling for months and something had triggered his verbal gag reflex and now there was only bile, yellow and sour, viscous, eating at the walls of his neck.

He looked up from a stain on the carpet and Sherlock’s gaze was steady.

After a moment, he continued.

“And then I had to phone my mum and tell her that her childhood sweetheart was… pleading to god to let him live. She and my grandparents and my dad’s two brothers drove down and then everything was lit up blue and red and I’d always wanted to see what the inside of an ambulance looked like but all I can remember was trying to tie up my shoelaces and the paramedic telling me off.

“They told him he had three days and I refused to sleep. He was unconscious for most of it, and the drugs they had to give him for the pain were so strong that he barely made sense when he did wake up. I remember only a couple of instances of lucidity but they were so short. Too short. On the last day, I was holding his hand and I blinked and when I woke up, the nurses were trying to loosen my grip so they could take him away. I missed it. I fucking missed it. And in a way I’m glad. Is that selfish? I don’t know.

“Anyway. No legal charges. Private road. The other driver was thirty over the speed limit but he couldn’t be charged because he was dead. The man who let a minor drive his car was also dead. So there was just me. Our family chose not to ask for compensation from the family of the other man, and the family of the other man chose not to ask for compensation from ours. The owner of the road chose not to press charges. But I’m not allowed to drive until I’m twenty-one. The police were pretty keen to sweep everything under the rug and forget about it. Everyone was pretty keen to sweep it under the rug and forget about it.”

“What is your therapist’s name?”

John blinked. “What?”

“I said, what is your therapist’s name? I’ve only heard you refer to her by her title. Why is that?”

“Really? Oh. Well, she’s called Ella. Thompson. Ella Thompson.”

“And not giving her a name is a way of distancing yourself from her humanity, makes opening up to her emotionally easier because she becomes less real if she is nameless? Yes?”

“I don’t know. Why do you care? Why the fuck is that relevant?”

Sherlock cursed himself. The boy sitting opposite him with the gunmetal-blue eyes had let down his guard and Sherlock had taken advantage. And now John was verging on angry. The face that had been open was now closed.

“I’m sorry, John.” That seemed to have no effect. A clock ticked somewhere in the house; the washing machine in the utility room went into a spin cycle. “I appreciate you telling me about your father.” John looked down at his lap. “I don’t think you were responsible for their deaths, by the way.” John only cocked his head with a tight-lipped smile, a dismissive gesture. Sherlock knew that conversation was going nowhere, so he tried a different approach. “Who’s Mary?”

“Oh,” John laughed shortly. “You tell me – what can you deduce?”

Sherlock pretended not to notice the small sting of insult in the last word and began. “From the conversation of your friends, I’d say she is a former romantic attachment, ex-girlfriend most likely. It was serious, obviously. She went to your old school and... and...”

“That it?”

“I don’t have very much to go on,” Sherlock conceded.

“You’re about there, to be honest.” John was making eye contact again, much to Sherlock’s relief. He sighed and sat back. “Mary Morstan. Known her since I was, ooh, thirteen? Yeah, thirteen. She was the new kid in my class in year nine; by year ten we were good friends; in year eleven, we got together. I loved her – don’t give me that face, I did! We were each other’s firsts, and I know that doesn’t mean anything and is a purely social construct but…” John looked to Sherlock’s face for a reaction but got none. “She was my first,” he repeated. No change. “I lost my virginity to her, Sherlock.”

“Oh god, too much information, John,” Sherlock recoiled, scrunching up his nose. John laughed – thank goodness – and stretched, yawning.

“I think it’s time to get this shit off our faces.”

***

“It’s like you were trying to fricking galvanise my face or something,” John called from the bathroom. Sherlock was sitting on John’s bed in his pyjamas, pulling on a pair of his roommate’s socks – it was beginning to become something of a tradition.

“It’s just make-up John, not zinc,” he replied.

“That’s what you think.”

“Well, there probably is some zinc oxide in there, actually. Plus some magnesium silicate, not to mention the dimethicone and polysorbates, and all the – ”

“Shut up! I don’t caaaare!” John shout-sang, and Sherlock smiled to himself.

“So… why didn’t you go to that party, if Mary meant so much to you?”

“Are you genuinely interested or still trying to make up for earlier?”

“I’m… chatting. Making conversation.” Sherlock said. “Won’t be doing that again.”

“Don’t, it doesn't suit you.”

A few moments passed, John cursing as he scrubbed at his face with his sister’s make up remover. Sherlock sat cross-legged on John’s bed, wandering through his head space.

“Well, first of all, you’re here and I don’t think you’d particularly enjoy a house party with lots of drunk people you don’t know,” John resumed suddenly. Sherlock opened an eye. “And Mary and I have both moved on from each other. She helped me get back on my feet after dad, but then things started to become not so good at home, and I was stressed out and it wasn’t good for her. And so we thought it would be best to get it over with and save each other the awkward, drifting-apart stage.” He laughed. “I can’t believe I’m talking about girls with you.”

At me, more like,” Sherlock said without thinking.

“Arsehole,” John countered good-naturedly. “So you’ve never had a boyfriend, then?”

Sherlock opened both eyes and brought his hands to his chin. “A boyfriend?”

“Well, you said girls weren’t your area, so…”

“Boys aren’t really my area either,” Sherlock said, narrowing his eyes.

“Oh, I see,” John said. The tap ran and turned off; footsteps coming down the corridor. “You decent?”

“No, I am disgustingly, revealingly, utterly nude. What is the view from your roof like?”

***

“If we fall and die, I am holding you accountable,” John warned a little grumpily as he shuffled along the spine of the roof to meet Sherlock in the middle. Sherlock said nothing in reply. “Is the view to your liking, sir?”

“Mmm, not bad,” Sherlock responded after a moment.

Just beneath them, the network of roads appeared orange in the light of the streetlamps, becoming narrower and narrower until they weren’t visible as they carried cars further and further from John’s home. Rows of houses identical to John’s divided the land into stripes in front of and behind them. Distinct shapes of buildings became insignificant and merged into one mass. Orange and white and yellow and blue and red smudges and dots and squares and winks and pin-pricks of light shone in the dark. Skyscrapers grasped at clouds far away to their left, thimble-sized and hazy. The horizon faded from a smoky orange into a smoky grey into a smoky black into void.

“What is it with you and rooves?”

“What do you mean?”

“From what I’ve heard, you have quite an affinity for them.”

Sherlock shot him a look. When he saw that John wasn’t trying to make fun of him, he sighed. “When you’re down there, you can’t think of anything else. It’s all so condensed and insistent. There’s no order. It’s a wonder we haven’t gone extinct yet, really. But seeing things from higher up is…” Comforting. Reassuring. ”The world has more of a structure, or at least it appears to. It reminds me of my mind palace.”

“Mind what now?”

“It’s a memory technique. You pick a place, real or of your own creation, and you store away information there so that it is quickly and easily accessible.”

“I think I’ve heard of that – the method of loci, right? You would call it a mind palace, though, wouldn’t you.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes.

“So you’re saying your mind… palace looks like a city from above?”

“No. It doesn’t look like this at all, but it has the same sense of detachment and overall…” He hissed in frustration. ”It’s difficult to articulate.”

“Who are you and what have you done with Sherlock Holmes?” John joked.

Sherlock rolled his eyes again. “It is like trying to describe the concept of colour, John. It's not something I remember consciously learning. It just is. You must bear in mind, my locus, my memory place, is huge. I use it to store almost every piece of information my senses gather, whether I am aware of it or not.”

“Jesus…”

“Which is why you mustn’t be confused if I forget something inconsequential, like who the Prime Minister is – ”

“That’s not inconsequential!”

“On the grand scheme of things, if you look at it from above, it is. I have to delete some things to make room for others which are more important,”

“So that’s why you didn’t know we don’t have a king.”

“That information is definitely not important.”

“Right. What else have you deleted then?”

“How am I supposed to know?”

“True.” Then, after a pause, “I bet you deleted Michael Jackson.”

“I’ll never be able to again, your singing made sure of that,” Sherlock dead-panned.

John laughed. “Right, for that, I am forcing you to watch crap telly and you are going to fucking hate it. Come on.”

***

Harry and Clara ambled down the quiet street, and it might have been the alcohol, or it might have been her and Clara’s hands brushing together as they walked, but Harry felt rather giddy.

She expressed this thought to her blue-haired… friend? Girlfriend? Whatever. Her blue-haired whatever laughed in that way that made her stomach do flips, and then they were at her house. Her blue-haired whatever kept tickling her as she tried to unlock the door, and as a consequence, she entered the house a little more noisily than had been hoped.

“Just wait here, I’ll be back in a sec,” she whispered.

“You’d better,” Clara whispered back, winking in such a ridiculous manner that Harry spluttered a giggle before remembering that it was gone midnight and her mother was not pleased with her anyway.

Harry crept up the stairs and peered into her mum’s bedroom. It was empty. Oh, yeah, the work thing, she recalled. Stupid Harry. She shook her head to try and clear some of the not-unpleasant fuzziness, straightening up and going to her own room.

Having retrieved her wallet, she jogged back down the stairs and was on her way to the front door when she halted as she passed the living room. The door was ajar, and through the gap she could see the dark shape of Sherlock on the sofa, knees drawn up to his chest. The room was lit solely by the light from the telly, which appeared to be showing the Jeremy Kyle Show with the volume turned down so the roars of the crowd were barely a whisper. She pushed it open a little further and the boy turned to her. He put a finger to his lips and there was the ghost of a smile on his usually-serious face as he inclined his head to the space on the sofa next to him. Harry shifted and saw what, or rather who, Sherlock was indicating to. John was slumped next to him, head resting on the arm, mouth open slightly, fast asleep.

The grin that bloomed across Harry's face was matched on Sherlock's before she slipped quietly from the house.

Chapter Text

Sherlock:How large does a fire have to be for one to need to call the emergency services?

John:jesUS CHRIST SHERLOCK

***

Sherlock:Viola is throwing a dinner party tomorrow.

Sherlock:Well, today.

Sherlock:The irony of her best silverware sticking out of her chest would be perfect, don’t you think?

Sherlock:John?

Sherlock:J

Sherlock:O

Sherlock:H

Sherlock:N

Sherlock:H

Sherlock:W

Sherlock:A

Sherlock:T

Sherlock:S

Sherlock:O

Sherlock:N

Sherlock:What does the H stand for?

Sherlock:Henry?

Sherlock:Humphrey?

Sherlock:Higgins?

John:It stands for Howaboutyougoawayandletmesleepforonce

Sherlock:John Howaboutyougoawayandletmesleepforonce Watson. Catchy.

***

John:Why not?

Sherlock:I don’t want to. I don’t need a reason other than that.

John:All right...

John:...Luddite.

Sherlock:Just because I don’t want to be assaulted with pictures of other people’s faces 24/7 does not mean I’m a Luddite.

John: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

John:^ I didn’t know there was a Wikipedia article on you???

John:Oh, now you’re giving me the silent treatment?

John:Fine.

John:No-one would add you anyway.

Sherlock:I am not getting Snapchat, John. Go away.

***

John:What are you wearing?

Sherlock:…?

John:I’m thinking about you ;)

John:I’m thinking about you while I wajndekognjhtrm4kofn akldmkgm

John:Sorry about that…

Sherlock:Harry?

John:Harry.

***

Sherlock:Mycroft fell off his horse today.

John:Oh my god

John:I would have paid to have seen that hahahahaha

Sherlock:It was very

Sherlock:Very

Sherlock:Very

Sherlock:Funny.

Sherlock:Viola didn’t laugh.

John:Looking forward to escaping her?

Sherlock:Unfortunately being rid of her means being back at school… but I’m not dreading it.

John:O_O

John:I think I might need glasses… or you really did just express an opinion that wasn’t fuelled by hatred??

Sherlock:I will bring hydrogen sulphide and use it as air freshener in our room, John. Don't think I won't.

***

John:You know what’s embarrassing?

John:Running for a train while dragging a suitcase behind you

John:And the suitcase

John:Because it is a shitty old one

John:Decides to get its wheel caught

John:And flip over out of your grasp

John:And then you have to right it and carry on running

John:What’s even more embarrassing is then trying to get said suitcase onto said train while the doors of said train keep trying to close and trap said suitcase between them

John:Repeatedly.

Sherlock:I am pretending to be asleep on the backseat so Mycroft doesn’t talk to me. Shush.

John:Fine.

John:See you in a few hours

John:You massive bellend

***

John was midway through the arduous task of dragging his misbehaving suitcase up the endless stairs of Doyle when he heard someone shout his name.

“John? John!”

John spun around to locate the voice.

“Down here!”

He leant over the banister and, sure enough, Mike was standing in the foyer, smiling up at him.

“Nice specs, man!”

Mike took the thin-framed glasses off his face and fiddled with them. “Yeah, I spent more time at the opticians over the half term than I’d expected… how was yours?”

“Not bad, thanks, not bad – Sherlock turned up at my house a few days in but it was pretty uneventful apart from that. Did you do anything interesting?”

“Er… not really, went to my cousins’ for a few days, went to a house party – got off with this girl with huge – ”

“Stop shouting, for Christ’s sake,” Lestrade poked his head out of his house and looked up at John. “If you’re going to have a conversation about boobs, can you please not do it with three flights of stairs between you?”

“Sorry sir,” Mike mumbled, ears reddening visibly – even from John’s lofty vantage point.

Lestrade made to return back into his house, but stuck his head back out again and added, “Oh, and nice specs.”

***

The familiar chorus of squeaks from the ancient floorboards under John’s feet welcomed him back as he made his way down the lower sixth corridor. It felt as if no time at all had passed since he had walked the other way down that narrow passage with London on his mind; as if someone had simply pressed pause to get a drink.

Nothing had changed. John supposed it wouldn’t have done, but he was still pleasantly surprised at Doyle’s consistency. Same smell of dust and laundry, same bare door of room twenty-one, same cool paint beneath his fingers as he pushed it open.

“Sher – oh.”

Room twenty-one was empty of Holmeses. All Sherlock’s stuff was there – the skull watching him silently from its bedpost as usual, the flame of a Bunsen burner glowing blue from behind a pile of books on the desk, his long coat hanging over the back of his – shit, a Bunsen burner near a pile of books, fucking hell, Sherlock –

John dropped his bags and turned the collar of the Bunsen burner until its flame calmed to a gentle yellow, waving quietly in the cool air drifting in through the open window. John followed the tube that fed gas into the contraption and located an orange canister under the desk, turning off the supply and banging his head on the table as he straightened up. This boy…

John rubbed the back of his head, sore and smarting, closed the window, and began to unpack.

The holiday hadn’t been all that long, just a couple of weeks, so he hadn’t taken very much home. A few books returned to their shelves, clothes filled his wardrobe again, shoes tucked neatly under his desk.

His phone chimed. A text from… Sarah. Sarah! A tiny ‘hello again, how were the hols’ text, nothing worth writing home about, but a text from Sarah all the same. John had thought all hopes of them meeting up again had been fried by Sherlock’s… well, by Sherlock, but maybe luck was on his side. John sent a message back, and was waiting for a reply when -

“Sherlock! Get back here!”

The shout was muffled, but the tone was clear. Seconds later the door to room twenty-one banged open and an all-too-familiar violin-wielding typhoon of a boy strode through.

“Uh – ” John began, but was cut off by the door being thrown open again.

Eddie stood in the doorway, a little out of breath, The Hulk behind him. “Sherlock, for god’s – oh – hi, John.”

“Hi,” John replied. There was a pause in which whatever they had been arguing about hung between the two parties, but neither seemed to want to break the awkward stalemate with John in the room. “Do you want to speak to Sherlock, or…?”

“Oh, yes – sorry.”

“No, it’s no problem – ”

“For Christ’s sake,” Sherlock spat, pushing past John to stand inches from Eddie, who blanched. “That is literally the worst idea I have ever heard, and I live with him,” Sherlock pointed at John, who rolled his eyes.

“If – if you would just hear me out – ” Eddie stammered.

“It’s enough that I’m being forced to do this competition anyway, but a dress?”

“What?” John interrupted. Three pairs of eyes snapped to his. “You’re going to make him wear a dress?”

“Well, yes, all the musicians are, because the lyrics… ”

“This is not a laughing matter John,” Sherlock said.

“I – uh,” John took a breath and tried to steady himself, but to no avail.

“You’d be surprised at the amount of cross-dressing in this competition,” Eddie explained to John, then turned his attention back to Sherlock. “It’s really not that big of a deal, honestly, Sherlock.”

“Just because other houses do it doesn’t mean we should as well,” Sherlock reasoned. “If Barnaby started walking around in lingerie, would you?”

Eddie blinked. “Who the hell is Barnaby?”

“Him!” Sherlock pointed at The Hulk, who slapped his hand away and growled,

“Never call me that again.”

“All right, listen,” John said, sensing things were getting a little off-piste. “Why don’t we wait until we start rehearsing as a house to make these kinds of decisions, yeah?”

Eddie heaved a breath of relief and fumbled in his gratitude. “Oh, yes, what a wonderful idea, ever the voice of reason, John – ”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth, but before anything malicious could come out, John interjected “Sherlock...” and gave him a look that he hoped conveyed ‘don’t be an insufferable arse’ with sufficient force. Sherlock rolled his eyes and went to his desk, obviously finished with the conversation.

“So…” John began.

“Yeah, yes, sorry – see you later, John,” Eddie said, giving him a quick smile and looking over John’s shoulder at Sherlock before walking away, The Hulk following.

John shut the door with an inward sigh of relief, closing his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he was presented with the sight of Sherlock crouched beneath his own desk.

“Why did you turn my Bunsen burner off?”

“Nice to see you too.”

***

“Right, boys, welcome back,” Lestrade started, flipping open the register. “First day of a new half term and George Osborne has some homework for you all.”

“Having his house filled with people distracts him from the absence of his ex-wife. He misses us when we're gone.” Sherlock muttered to John, who had just noticed the return of Lestrade’s nicknames himself.

"Not sure he misses you, though," John replied, laughing when Sherlock shot him an exasperated look.

Eddie stood up and made a very pointed speech about the looming house singing competition – recognising that not everyone was going to be happy with the decisions made, but emphasising that it was going to be a team effort and sometimes that would mean sacrificing one’s personal beliefs for the good of the house – before handing out lyric sheets.

“Full-house rehearsal at four thirty today, here, in the common room,” he finished. Sherlock huffed.

“In other news, I have the lower sixth’s work experience details here,” Lestrade announced. “So if someone would like to come up and get those, because I’m not going to move.”

John, after realising that that was somehow his job if the lack of movement from his peers was anything to go by, got up from the sofa and took the slips of paper from Lestrade. He flicked through them before giving them out; Claus – sports hall, Ollie – technical theatre, Glen – sports hall, Mike – Speedy’s, Vlad – catering, Eric – IT support, himself – san, and – Sherlock? John blinked and re-read the last piece of paper. It began:

PUPIL:  HOLMES, S

HOUSE:  DOYLE

POSITION:  LABORATORY TECHNICIAN

It went on to list rules and instructions - where to be the next day at what time and so on - but the important bit was there in black and white: Sherlock had applied, and to be a lab technician, no less.

John returned to his seat on the sofa, wedged between Sherlock and Mike. He held out Sherlock’s slip to him, and the boy snatched it without making eye contact.

“I thought this scheme was, what was it, dull?” John inquired smugly.

Sherlock ignored him and seemed to have taken a rapt interest to what Lestrade was saying. John laughed to himself.

***

John had been hoping for some sort of grace period after the half term holiday, but lessons were just as intense and confusing as usual. During his free period that fell during the last lesson of the day, he fell unconscious onto his bed, only to be woken minutes later by Claus’ snorts of laughter as Glen drew a penis on his face in Sharpie.

“And I thought private schools were supposed to educate the elite,” John grumbled as he scrubbed at his cheek with a flannel.

Sherlock, leaning against the sink next to him, twirled his violin in his hands and said nothing.

“You all right? ‘S not like you to not have a snarky comment to everything I say.”

“Me? I’m fine. Fine. I am completely fine.”

John stopped scrubbing and looked at his friend, who was tapping his fingers against his thigh. “Are you nervous about something?”

“No. I’ve never been nervous in my life.”

“So how do you know that you’re not?” Sherlock opened his mouth, but closed it and furrowed his eyebrows. “That got you,” John smiled. “But really. You can tell me, you know.”

Sherlock met John’s gaze and seemed to scrutinise him for a moment before taking a breath and  -

The door opened and Lestrade shouted into the bathroom, “Rehearsal, boys, let’s go!”

The moment of confession was lost. Another time, perhaps.

“Well, I suppose this’ll have to do,” John sighed, passing a hand over his now genitalia-less but very pink cheek. “Shall we?”

***

The common room seemed very small, stuffed with restless teenage boys as it was. Someone had hauled a drum kit into the corner from somewhere, and many of the younger years were fawning over it in awe. John stood with Mike and the others, while Sherlock had been beckoned over to the rest of the musicians. John watched him – he kept clenching and unclenching his free hand and flexing his fingers. He didn’t seem to be aware he was doing it. Definitely uneasy about something.

“Quiet, everyone,” Eddie ordered, but to no effect. The boys continued chattering and shouting and laughing. “Guys? Can we have some quiet?”

“Shut up!” Lestrade roared. Silence fell.

“Okay, everyone,” Eddie began, swallowing. “Thanks for being here. We’ve only got just over two weeks until we’re performing this in front of the school, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. Hopefully you’ve all heard the song by now, so you should have some idea of what we should all sound like, but, uh…”

“Why don’t we hear what you’ve got already?” Lestrade prompted.

“Oh! Yes, why don’t we,” Eddie turned to the musicians. “Is that okay with everyone?”

He got a few shrugs in reply, and, seemingly taking that as a yes, squeezed his way through the mob of boys and sat at the piano.

“Sit down, boys,” Lestrade instructed, and the house obeyed. John looked up at Sherlock – he was drumming his fingers against the body of the violin. It was only then that John considered the possibility of Sherlock having stage fright – he’d never seen him perform in front of more than a handful of people, and Eric had sounded surprised when he had put Sherlock’s name down...

“Ready?” Eddie called over his shoulder. “Sherlock?”

The boy caught John’s eye before settling the instrument underneath his chin and staring straight ahead.

Vlad leant over and whispered to John, “I didn’t know he played the violin.”

John nodded in reply, too preoccupied with worrying about Sherlock to respond properly. What if he messed up and everyone laughed at him? He took pride in his musical ability; that would affect him more than he would let on.

“One, two, three…”

He saw Sherlock take a breath, put the bow to the strings and play. Just as beautifully as John had ever heard him. John felt himself relax. Eric strummed on the bass and Eddie chimed in with the piano and they were off.

They had certainly improved since the first rehearsal John had eavesdropped on – still not perfect, a few slipped notes here and there, the timing a little off in places, but as the song went on, John could see Sherlock becoming visibly more comfortable. Someone started up some clapping at one point, bringing a smile to Eddie’s nervous features. He even thought he saw the corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitch when Mike whooped after he pulled off a fast, vigorous section with a trademark flourish of his bow.

The applause afterwards had no visible effect on the boy – his face remained stony as ever – but John could practically see his ego swelling. However, the moment was deflated somewhat when Eddie called on the rest of the house to sing along.

***

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” John asked, lying on his bed after the rehearsal had disbanded.

Sherlock, having taken up his favourite spot in front of the window again, turned to him, mouth twisting into the beginning of a smile, before turning back to the view.

“Nah,” he concluded lightly after a moment of thought, before returning the violin to its home underneath his pale chin once more.

***

John woke the next morning to frost creeping up the panes of the window, the pale fingers of winter pressing ever closer. As the day wore on, hands continually sought pockets, words hung in the air like white wraiths, and a shiver-induced impulse resulted in John plucking the increasingly omnipresent scarf from the neck of his roommate and refusing to return it. Winter had always been a surreptitious thing; slowly and quietly displacing the in-between of autumn, not noticed until it was too late to prepare.

John had only ever been to the san once before, and that was to accompany a limping Mike after a rugby match gone wrong. He hadn’t even gone inside, had just said goodbye at the door. And yet here I am. He stood at the entrance, hoping he was dressed appropriately – the instructions did say casual, but what exactly does casual even mean? Sunday night casual? Smart casual? Dinner at the pub casual?

He had had half a mind to bring Harry’s lab coat, but had thought at the last minute that perhaps that would be coming on a little too keenly a little too soon.

The san smelt, first of all, of lemon. Lemon cleaning fluid, to be precise. The floor was too clean – the squeaking of his shoes set his teeth on edge as he rounded a corner and walked up to what he guessed was the reception desk.

The man sitting behind the desk looked up as he approached. By his appearance, he seemed to be on the precipice of middle age.

“Hi, I’m John Watson,” John began.

“For work experience?” the man asked. John nodded. “Oh, thank god you’re here, one of the nurses is off sick and to be honest I’m overqualified to sit behind this desk all day,” the man went on. He spoke very quickly, and with zealous hand gestures to match. He stood up, and almost as an afterthought, extended his hand to John over the desk. “I’m Doctor Smith, by the way.”

John was struggling to keep up, but shook the man’s slightly clammy hand anyway.

“We’re just waiting for one more of you lot to turn up, a girl by the name of Molly Hooper, d’you know her?”

“Yes, she – ”

“Great, well if you’d just like to wait in here with… whoever this is, and then I’ll give you a tour,” Smith guided John into the waiting room, which was tiny, and contained, oddly, church pews instead of chairs.

There was another boy sitting on one of the pews. John recognised his face but didn’t have any classes with him – he was still getting to know everyone, which was a task made even more difficult by his roommate. He heard Smith retreating to his desk, leaving behind a smell of unwashed linen, and sat next to the other boy.

“Jamie Lancaster,” the boy greeted him.

“Nice to meet you. I'm John.

“Yeah, I know.”

John laughed uneasily. “That’s a bit creepy,”

“Oh, no, it’s just – you’re Sherlock Holmes’ roommate,” Jamie explained. “People know him, so they know you.”

“Oh,” John said as he took in the new information. “Right.” It seemed Sherlock’s radius of influence was wider than he’d first thought.

***

The science block was so, so much quieter outside lesson hours. Blissful, really. Sherlock appreciated that he could actually hear his own shoes scuffing on the concrete stairs as he ascended them, the air free of shrieks and laughter and other such people noises.

As he made his way down the length of the building, he passed fading hand-made posters that lined the walls, and his brain couldn’t help but provide a rapid commentary on each one as his eyes flickered over it.

That one was done by a boy who had smoked weed for the very first time the evening before it was due, that one had had a dead mouse dropped on it by the girl who made it's cat, that one –

Sherlock stopped. He sniffed the air. That scent, that perfume… no. No, she has no interest in voluntary anything, she wouldn’t have signed up for – unless she is here for the same reason I am… surely not. She has her own ways of acquiring things she needs, she never has to steal. Unless. Unless.

Unless.

***

“And this,” Smith wrestled with the lock before pulling the doors open. “Is where we keep all the important lotions and potions. Exciting, huh?”

Molly, Jamie and John leaned in. The cupboard was stuffed to the roof with bottles of pills, syrups, tinctures, everything and anything. Most of the names printed on the labels John couldn’t even pronounce in his head, let alone guess at what they did or what they treated.

Jamie reached out to pick up a bottle, but Smith slammed the door shut, nearly chopping off the boy’s hand and making Molly jump.

“Ah, ah ah,” the man cautioned. “That is strictly out of bounds. Most of the time, anyway. Get the permission of the nurse on duty before you go tinkering, yeah?”

***

That perfume had vaporised and had not appeared again. Good.

Sherlock, having been shown around the technicians’ rooms and all the cupboards (which wasn’t necessary because he’d broken into nearly all of them many times before, but he neglected to mention that), and had been left to stack some left over things from a lesson earlier that day.

Alone.

In a room full of chemicals.

They have a lot to learn.

He slowly made his way around the room, trailing his fingers over bottles and equipment as he went. So many things he could do with all of those chemicals at his fingertips. Of course, it was a little unpleasant, the smell of them all. Despite that he had become quite desensitised to all manner of toxic vapours over time, the sheer concentration of so many in one place was a little dizzying. A little overpowering.

Which was why he had no idea someone had entered the room until he felt the brush of lips against the back of his neck.

“Hello, Irene.”

“Mr Holmes.”

Sherlock turned around. And there she was.

“I thought I smelt you skulking around,” Sherlock said, trying to keep as still as possible to conceal his discomfort at her proximity. Why must she always stand so close?

“Mm, I knew you would. So clever.” She smiled. “I’m going to miss you next year.”

“I can’t say the feeling is mutual,” Sherlock lied. Despite his every effort to force the contrary, his subconscious had built a small but indulgently furnished room in his mind palace for her, in which she lounged, always nude, the way she had been when they first met.

Sherlock had been fifteen years old, and trying to break into the head of the music department’s flat. He hadn’t been as adept at lock-picking in those days, and so it was no surprise that someone inside the apartment heard his frustrated efforts and approached the door on feet so soft that Sherlock was taken completely by surprise when the handle began to turn. He was even more taken by surprise when, crouching as he was, the door opened, he found himself staring straight at the pale, naked form of a girl. Her pubic hair would remain in his mind for a very, very long time; so dark against her porcelain skin, trimmed neatly, not a curl out of place.

In fact, so taken by surprise was he that he fell backwards onto his rump, feeling more foolish than he could ever remember feeling up to that point. He looked very stubbornly at her feet – toenails painted blood red – as they padded over to him. She crouched down, put two fingers – the same shade as her toes – beneath his chin and raised his eyes to hers. Her hair tumbled around her shoulders, her eyes were lined with flicks of green. She was not beautiful. She was terrifying.

She led him into the teacher’s bedroom and sat him in the chair next to the bed. The bed that still contained the sleeping woman. Irene sat on the bed and crossed one leg over the other and folded her arms, for which Sherlock was grateful.

“I suppose you’re here for the same reason I am,” she said, and her voice was clear and precise, and even a little girlish, but that made it all the more numbing.

Sherlock had nothing to say.

For the first time in his life, his deductive powers stuttered and coughed and died, leaving him stranded. He did not know anything about this girl before him. Her makeup and hair revealed nothing. Her bare skin was silent. Was he ill? He looked back at the teacher and around the room and – no, he was not ill. The teacher was in her early twenties, had been teaching at the school for three years and had attended the Christening of a nephew two days previously.

But this girl… nothing. This was not her flat, she was completely out of context. Sherlock had no power over her. He was helpless.

But he couldn’t let her see that.

“Well, I’m definitely not here to seduce a mediocre saxophonist with two budgerigars and a history of money laundering, so I doubt it,” he replied, "although, despite your state of dress, it doesn't seem like you're having much luck with the seduction. Are you sure this woman is that kind of criminal?"

The girl laughed. “Oh, you’re a clever one aren’t you? That’s good. Interesting. Brainy’s the new sexy, you know.”

Sherlock froze.

Irene smirked. “Poor lamb,” she purred. “Are you a little bit confused?”

Sherlock stood up and forced his throat to unclench. “You know where the papers are then?”

“Oh, yes, but you aren’t having them, my dear,” she smiled at him. “Those papers are mine. They’re a part of my aegis, you see. My protection. Not everyone likes the idea of sixteen year old girls sleeping with, well, anyone, let alone the people I have. So I am sorry, but you’ll just have to go without.” At this, she rose, walked to him, and placed a perfect, poisonous kiss on his cheek.

Over the years, Sherlock came to realise that Irene Adler, forever The Woman to him, was more powerful than he could ever have envisioned. Her varnished talons reached far beyond the head of the music department, and would come to close around the highest offices of the land, Sherlock felt sure, far sooner than anyone would like to imagine. Her motives for what she did were still elusive to him; even hacking into the school records had shone no light onto her background. Simply a name, her name, and a screen of blank space. Her past remained an aphotic corner in his mind. Perhaps it was just because she could. Perhaps she had a different reason. But Sherlock would never know it, and that infuriated and frustrated and fascinated and scared him more than he would ever show.

“How long is it now? Until you leave?”

“A matter of months. I don’t care to count. Anyway,” she retreated and leant against the edge of a table. “I didn’t come here to chat. I have a case for you.”

***

“You should definitely wear it next time!” Molly enthused. John had been telling her and Jamie about Harry’s lab coat while they pretended to sweep the floor of the empty ward.

“I’m sure Doctor Smith would appreciate it,” Jamie said sarcastically. “That guy’s a real bastard.”

“Still bitter about your near-amputation, I see,” John remarked, trailing off as his phone began to vibrate in his pocket. He put it to his ear. “Hi, Sherlock.”

Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Jamie roll his eyes and Molly sit up a little straighter.

“John. Can you get out of the san?”

“For how long?”

“I don’t think you’ll be returning.”

***

Sherlock had told him to meet him by the bike sheds, and as John made his way over there, he rather detachedly found that his pulse was elevated. Not out of fear – no, his hand was stable as he held it in front of him. After a little digging, he realised it was out of a reserved kind of excitement. And he was more worried that that didn’t worry him than about what Sherlock had called him to.

It felt good, really. After all this time, Sherlock was finally letting John in on a case. And John noticed that the quotation marks were no longer present in his mind when that word – case – came to its forefront. It seemed they were both beginning to take each other seriously. His therapist - no; Ella would be pleased.

From what John had gathered, the bike sheds had an intended use – the shelter and security of the groundskeepers’ bicycles – and an actual use – something some would define as romantic. They were located just in front of a block of mostly disused garages, and from the san, the quickest way was to get there was to take a brisk walk across a lacrosse pitch. Which John did.

As he approached, he could see two figures waiting for him, one tall and coat-clad; the other shorter and unfamiliar.

Except, of course, that second figure was not unfamiliar in the slightest. As John got closer, his heart sank. That figure was familiar to all. Irene Adler.

John had only heard her name in revered whispers. When he had tried to find out more than that, he had run into a brick wall of conspiracy. It seemed rumours followed her like the perfume that clung to her clothes – she was known for many things, but nobody knew anything about her. It was certain that she used sex to hold power over just about everyone, male or female, but that was the only certainty. All looked after her with awe, but she only had eyes, true eyes, for one person, whose gender provoked no scandal because the school feared her too much to create one. She was intangible, untouchable.

John had never spoken to her, had only seen her once or twice. And yet he knew he could draw her face from memory if he wanted to.

What was she doing with Sherlock? What was Sherlock doing with her?

She was known for wearing a pair of heavy and immaculately polished army boots, and that day was no different. She had her hair up in such a way that would have looked pretentious on anybody else. Her smile of greeting made him feel sick.

“So this is him,” she said, in equal parts to Sherlock, John and herself, looking him up and down.

“John, hi,” he said shortly.

“He’s precious,” Irene turned to Sherlock. “Not what I’d expected, though.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” John asked.

“Oh, nothing,” she fixed him with a stony gaze, a confident smile on her crimson lips.

John returned that gaze. Something about that girl made him feel like a cat with its hackles raised.

“Anyone interested in the case at all?” Sherlock asked, an edge of annoyance to his voice. The girl gave John one last smirk before turning back to Sherlock.

“Let’s go, lanky.”

Irene led the boys around the bike sheds, down an alleyway between two buildings, and stopped in the middle of a small courtyard.

The concrete was cracked, old plastic tarpaulins and containers lay in heaps in the corners. They were surrounded on all sides by the backs of grey, windowless, hulking garages. But no case. John didn’t know what exactly a case looked like, but he didn’t think that was it.

“What am I looking at here?” he asked.

“Turn around.” Irene instructed.

So they did. They were now facing the way they’d come. Two garages were separated by the short alleyway they’d walked down, and through that alleyway they could see the dull green back of one of the bike sheds.

“My earlier question still stands,” John said. He could see nothing of interest – that area of the school was tucked away out of sight for good reason. It was barely used and ugly, and there was nothing that even looked remotely like a case.

“Come back tonight.” Irene instructed.

“And will you be joining us, Miss Adler?” Sherlock asked, and John couldn’t read his face nor his tone.

“Not a chance in hell, handsome,” Irene returned, looking at Sherlock again. Really looking. Something was off about the pair of them. “I have a school governor to fuck. But do inform me of your findings, won’t you?” She cocked her head to one side.

Lanky. Handsome. Not what I’d expected.

“You already know what’s here, so no, I see no reason to,” Sherlock replied.

“Oh, no, I have no idea what’s here. I just had a… tipoff, let’s say, from someone who, themselves, thought that something fun might be going on in this grungy old place. I am no more the wiser than you, for once.”

Sherlock said nothing, but that seemed to satisfy Irene. She turned around and walked away down the alleyway. “Bye, sexy,” she called over her shoulder. “Bye, John,”

Sherlock watched her retreat, expression still unreadable.

“So,” John started after a moment of silence. “You and her.”

“Her and I.”

“You and her.”

There was a pause.

“Were you…?” he trailed off, hoping Sherlock would fill in the rest.

“Were we what?” Sherlock replied. John knew he knew exactly what but didn’t want to answer the question – he’d used that technique before.

“I thought you said that – ”

Without giving him a chance to finish, Sherlock stalked off down the alleyway, leaving John to his very confused thoughts.

***

It was dark; John lay in bed, as did Sherlock. Curtains closed, teeth brushed, all but two lights turned off.

Two knocks sounded in quick succession on the door of room twenty-one, and the door was pushed open.

“Lights out, you two,” Lestrade said, and John obeyed, switching off the one by his head. Sherlock continued to scroll through something on his phone. “Sherlock. Come on.” Reluctantly, Sherlock reached up and turned off his light as well. “Goodnight, boys,” Lestrade said as he left the room.

Everything as usual. Nothing different that night to any other.

Except that John and Sherlock were fully clothed beneath their duvets. As soon as the door closed, John ripped back his covers and sat up. “It’s hotter under there than I’d thought, Jesus,”

“Mm,” Sherlock agreed, also disentangling himself from the bedclothes.

“How long do we have to wait?”

“Oh, about an hour and a half, maybe two.”

John nodded. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. Well, he could. But he knew Sherlock wouldn’t want to discuss that. Her. Discuss her.

Conversation had been a little forced between them since that afternoon. It felt to John as if they had not only been trying to avoid the elephant in the room; they had been trying to do so while playing Twister with it, and John's arms were beginning to shake with the effort. Now they had two hours to kill. Alone, with nothing to distract them from the events of the day.

“Let’s play a game.”

***

“Am I a vegetable?” John asked.

He was sitting on the floor, leaning against his ladder, legs stretched out towards Sherlock’s desk. Sherlock was doing the same against his own. The taller boy’s sock-clad feet reached John’s knees, but John’s barely passed Sherlock’s ankles. After having played three rounds of the game consecutively, John had been running out of names of celebrities his roommate would know, so the Post-it note on his forehead simply read ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

“This game is utterly ridiculous, John,”

“Am. I. A. Vegetable?”

Sherlock sighed. “No.”

“Your go.”

“Fine. Am I… a man?”

“Not really,” John replied. “You’re half way there,”

“You can’t have ‘not really’; yes or no?”

“No.”

“My go, then… am I a man?”

“No.”

“You again.”

“Am I famous?”

John laughed. “You’d think of yourself as famous.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes, yes, whatever.”

“Am I a good person?”

“Sometimes.”

“John, you can’t have – ”

“Yes! Yes, you are a good person.”

“Hmm. Am I clever?”

“Too clever.”

“Hmm… do people… like me?”

John looked at his friend. In the low light from the lamps above their beds, his cheekbones cast the lower portion of his face into shadow, and his eyes were colourless – startlingly so.

No, Sherlock. People hate you. I still can’t understand why. You’re the most human human being I’ve ever met, despite you trying to convince the world you’re above all that. I look at you and I see a child in a coat that's too big and I don’t understand why everyone else thinks it fits.

“This game is way more fun when you’re drunk,” John said suddenly, ripping the paper off his forehead and doing the same to Sherlock’s before he had a chance to look at what was written there. He scrunched the names up into a ball and dropped them into the bin under his desk.

***

John had his eyes closed and was trying not to fall asleep. Neither boy had moved, despite the game having ended quite some time ago. Sherlock had reached up to his desk and pulled his violin down into his lap, and he was now plucking it softly. There was no tune or pattern to it, but it was very pleasant anyway. Sherlock could play ‘happy birthday’ and make it sound like Paganini had risen from the grave.

In order to keep himself awake more than anything (he told himself), John broke the silence.

“Tell me about Irene Adler.”

The plucking stopped. John opened his eyes.

Sherlock’s hands and eyes were resting on the instrument in his lap. His eyebrows were creased together, his mouth was shut tight. He looked… in pain. Confused. Childlike. John had never seen him like that, so emotionally raw. It twisted something in his chest. Sherlock glanced up, saw John watching him, and instantly his features reset into a hard mask.

“There’s nothing to tell,” he stated, standing. “Time to go.”

***

John's exit from their window was a little smoother this time, and soon the pair were walking silently down the alleyway. It was a frigid night. The sky was clear, the moon had waned into a sliver of weak light. The twin beams of torchlight jumped jerkily as the boys walked, unsure of what they were supposed to be focusing them on.

They came out into the courtyard as they had that afternoon. Their footsteps echoed harshly as they turned around.

“Oh."

A word was spray painted on the wall of the garage to the left of the alleyway. Another was spray painted onto the wall of the garage to the right of the alleyway. A third was spray painted onto the back of one of the bike sheds, in the middle of the two others, visible down the alleyway.

From left to right, they made up the sentence –

Omnia causa fiunt.” Sherlock read aloud.

“What is that, Latin?” John asked.

Sherlock hummed his agreement. “Omnia causa fiunt.” He repeated. “All things happen for a reason.”

The words were yellow, and in capital letters, shouting out at them from the bricks. Sherlock approached the back of the garage that offered the first word, omnia. John followed behind.

Sherlock put his face very close to the wall and inhaled deeply.

“What are you – ”

“Shh!” he hissed. He sniffed again and – to John’s horror – stuck out his tongue and licked the paint. “Zinc,” he muttered. He wiped his thumb along the body of the ‘i’ and rubbed his digits together. “Hardcore propellant…” he turned to John. “How good is your knowledge of brands of spray paint?”

“Uh…”

“Hm, dismal, then,” he tutted. “Shame. So is mine, I have to admit.” With a whirl of his coat he began walking off down the alleyway.

“Where are you going?” John called.

“How do you feel about a trip to the art block?” Sherlock called over his shoulder.

“What, now?” John shouted back, before remembering the time of night and wincing.

“No, next Wednesday,” Sherlock replied disdainfully, turning the corner and out of John’s sight.

“The CCTV will be on – unless you’ve got another black-out planned.”

“Damn!” Sherlock’s echoing footsteps faltered for a moment, before resuming, seemingly unfazed. His head suddenly appeared around the edge of the garage, instructing, “Hurry up. We need to find Raz,” before disappearing again into the night.

***

Sherlock stood beneath Raz’s window, set into the second floor of Dickens, throwing pebbles at the aforementioned panes of glass in a rhythm just irregular enough to annoy the occupants into waking.

“So, who’s Raz?” John jogged up to him, a little out of breath. Sherlock didn't realise he had left him behind - he tended to assume John was always following him. That was usually the case.

Irene had texted him something alluding to that a couple of weeks ago - who's your new puppy, Mr Holmes? She had then said something about leashes and 'having dinner', and Sherlock had ignored the message.

Oh, yes. John asked a question.

“Anderson’s friend. Underachiever. Barely scraped enough GCSEs to not be expelled. The only reason they keep him is his art scholarship. Creator of such pieces as Rural Bloodlust Frenzy.”

“What?”

“That graffiti of a pig in the head master’s gown that appeared on the side of the cricket pavilion last half term.”

“Oh,” John nodded as he remembered the incident and a silence fell between them, broken only by the sharp but quiet crack of stones hitting glass.

“Is Anderson still causing you trouble?”

Sherlock snorted. “Why, are you going to beat him up for me?” he sneered. “I’m not a damsel in distress for you to save, John,”

John didn’t get a chance to reply (which was perhaps for the best, Sherlock admitted) as the dark window suddenly lit up and shapes began moving behind the curtain. After a moment, it was pushed aside and the window was pulled up by a very disgruntled-looking Anderson, running a hand through his greasy bed hair and pushing on a pair of glasses.

“What the fuck do you want?”

“Keep your voice down,” Sherlock hissed. “Will you wake up Raz?”

“Why should I, freak?”

Sherlock sighed inwardly. Why must people be so difficult?

“You’re spending too much time with Sally Donovan again, Anderson, you’re using her vocabulary now.”

“Just because you can’t get a girl,” Anderson retorted, puerile and tiresome. “Oh, wait, not that you’d want to, you fucking poof.”

John bristled beside him. “Just wake up Raz, Anderson,” he instructed, voice low and commanding. Now that’s interesting, Sherlock thought, but dismissed it and left it for another time.

Anderson looked down at John for a moment, then shook his head to himself and disappeared from sight. A few seconds later, another boy appeared in his place.

“What do you want?” Raz asked sleepily.

“We need your help,” Sherlock said. In the corner of his vision, he could see John turn to him, a look of delightedly smug surprise on his face at his wording, and ignored him.

“You know how I work, Sherlock,” Raz said, stifling a yawn. “I scratch your back…”

“I take a bath in bleach, I know,” Sherlock finished, John’s small exhalation of laughter making his mouth curl upwards. Annoying. “Lestrade had some friends over recently, and I’m sure some of them drank more than he’d realised,”

“Now you’re speaking my language,” Raz grinned lopsidedly. “I’ll be down in a tick.”

***

“It… it was right here,” John said, running his hands over the bricks. Dry.

Raz folded his arms. “Is this a fucking joke? Holmes?”

Sherlock put his hands to his lips, fingers steepled.

John ran his torch beam over the walls. The graffiti was nowhere to be seen. The walls were bare, the back of the bike shed clean. “It’s been scrubbed off,”

“Painted over,” Sherlock corrected. “That paint would have been too difficult to clean off in the ten minutes we were absent.” He inhaled and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Well, I’m sorry about your little Rembrandt situation, but I’m going back to bed,” Raz said, zipping up his hoodie and making to walk off.

“Whoa, whoa, hang on,” John said. “Don’t be so hasty,” he drew his phone out of his pocket.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock demanded, striding over and looking over his shoulder.

“I took a picture of it before I caught up with you earlier,” John explained, trying not to sound too proud of himself. “While you stalked off to find him,” he nodded at Raz, who was walking over to the pair. He showed Sherlock the photos.

“Yes. Well.” Sherlock inhaled. “That was…”

John laughed. “A good idea? Brilliant? A stroke of genius?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes, but there was a hint of a smile at their corners.

“Let’s have a look,” Raz prompted, holding out his hand. John gave him the phone, and the boy flipped through the pictures, squinting at them.

“Well? Do you recognise the brand?” Sherlock asked impatiently.

“Calm your tits, mate,” Raz replied. “Looks like Michigan, maybe. Not something you can get from the art block, definitely.”

“The village?”

“No way, this kind of stuff would have to be ordered in specially.”

Sherlock pursed his lips. “How about the handwriting? Someone who graffitis here regularly?”

“I don’t recognise it,” Raz handed back the phone to John. “Can I go back to house now?”

“It’s someone who is used to the paint, look at the confidence of the curves,” Sherlock muttered.

“Yeah, go on,” John supplemented for his friend.

“Ta,” Raz began to swagger off down the alley. “Good luck with whatever you’re doing,” he called back. “Good luck with him, too.”

“Thanks,” John replied. I’m going to need it, he thought, as he watched Sherlock pacing back and forth in the dark, murmuring under his breath and staring at John’s phone. It’s going to be a long one.

Chapter Text

Ninety-six hours later and the case had ground to a halt. John had been counting.

Sherlock had stopped eating four days previously, stopped sleeping three, and hadn’t left their room for two.

Of course, when Sherlock stopped sleeping, so did John. Not voluntarily, of course. John knew that Sherlock usually slept very little anyway, but John knew that Sherlock was also usually very careful not to wake him at night. However, those past few days, as soon as John let his eyelids fall shut, it seemed, Sherlock would say something, or start playing his violin, or start burning something, and John would jerk awake.

He had come to the conclusion that Sherlock didn’t realise he was keeping him awake, and realised even less that it was unpleasant in the extreme. John had shouted – oh, yes, he had definitely made his opinion clear – but Sherlock had simply ignored him, which only served to rile John up even more. Sherlock had retreated into the dark abyss of his own mind, and there was nothing John could do about it.

It was a Saturday evening, and John was trying to do some maths homework without passing out. His eyes were burning and rubbing them only made them sting more. The symbols on the page before him swam and merged and blurred, and John put his head in his hands and sighed.

“Everything happens for a reason, what goes around comes around, yes,” Sherlock said to himself. He was pacing back and forth in his pyjamas, muttering to himself every now and again, the same phrases over and over, stuck on a loop.

The main problem with the case was that they had so little to go on. Three words in yellow paint. Omnia causa fiunt. What Sherlock seemed to be most upset about was that the phrase they found that night was completely unrelated to anything.

“Everything happens for a reason but nothing is happening!” He’d exclaimed more than once, slapping the wall where he’d started a web of paper and thread, ideas winding across a huge map of the school. “I would know, I have my markers!”

And Sherlock was right. Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had happened before or since the discovery of those three words that would link them to a further lead, or even to the case itself, because, as John had pointed out, there didn’t appear to be a mystery there to solve.

“Have you considered that it could just be some kid mucking about with graffiti?” he’d asked the day before.

“That is only a possible explanation of some of the facts,” Sherlock replied curtly. “Don’t say anything if you’re going to be boring.”

And that had been the end of that conversation.

John pushed his maths to one side. Sherlock was still muttering to himself and it was intensely and acutely annoying.

However, having a small ball of rage for a sister had taught John well. Being angry with an angry person was enjoyable in the short term, but it would leave him wracked with guilt into the small hours. Also, despite his temper wearing thin, his concern for Sherlock was growing. The boy was looking more and more emaciated by the day. So John hopped down from his bed and asked, “I’m going to make a cup of tea, d’you want one? Sherlock?”

His roommate didn’t say anything, which was to be expected.

While he was making the teas – plural; if he put it down within Sherlock’s reach, hopefully he’d drink it when John wasn’t looking – his phone buzzed.

Sarah:Movie night in Frank in half an hour, be there or be square :) x

The text was from Sarah – finally! A shred of normalcy, praise be!

He replied with something he hoped was witty and took the mugs upstairs.

When he returned to room twenty-one, he found Sherlock sitting in the middle of the floor with his legs drawn up to his chest, silent for once. John set the mug next to his bony foot. “Don’t spill it.”

Sherlock, again, said nothing, and continued staring at something John couldn’t see.

It seemed they were playing a waiting game. Waiting for omnia to happen and then to discern its causa. John sat atop his bunk, drank his tea and ruminated on the state of affairs.

His eyes had been drifting, unfocused, about the room, and had settled unseeingly on his roommate, still on the floor. Sherlock’s hunched shoulders seemed to sum up the best part of the past week pretty succinctly, and John remembered suddenly that he’d completely forgotten his drawings in all the stagnant chaos. His sketchpad was on his desk, and he leaned over the side of his bed to get it, squishing his insides and feeling all his blood rush to his head.

His biro was particularly suited to capturing Sherlock’s straggly, unwashed curls, showers having been forgotten along with food. Sherlock didn’t smell, luckily – he had told John once that he made a point of never sweating unless he had to; it was somehow beneath him. John smiled at the memory.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, of course, that Sherlock couldn’t find anything to go on. He’d spent his days hacking into records, finding people, possible witnesses, even the boy who’d tipped off Irene. But it had all been in vain. They were no closer to the case than they had been at the start.

As John drew, his eye was caught by a small movement. Sherlock unwound his arm from his knees and cautiously reached down to the mug at his feet. He encircled it with his thin fingers and slowly brought it to his lips, as if in a dream, or underwater. Which, John supposed, he was; drowning in his own thoughts. It lifted a little of the worry from John to see his friend consuming something, albeit something very insubstantial.

John continued drawing until he glanced at his watch and realised that he was due at Sarah’s film night in ten minutes.

“I’m going over to Frank for the movie thing,” John said to Sherlock as he pulled on his shoes. “I won’t be back for a while.”

Sherlock, of course, didn’t reply, but John knew that he’d hear eventually. It would just take a while for John’s words to wind their way through the corridors and staircases of his ridiculous mind palace to whichever room Sherlock had locked himself inside.

***

Sarah greeted him outside Frank, the glass door of the modern building spilling light onto her soft features. When she hugged him hello she smelt of something floral, and as she led him – by the hand – into the common room, John felt himself relaxing into the enveloping ordinariness of it all.

The room was dark, and each sofa, chair, and beanbag had someone on it; male, female, quite a few couples, all from the sixth form. John recognised most of them by sight, and nodded a hello to the lads from his rugby team. Apparently Sarah’s friend had saved her and John a space, because as Sarah led him – still by the hand – towards a sofa at the back, two girls got up with knowing smiles and relocated to somewhere else.

The sofa was new, like the rest of the house, but no less comfortable than the old ratty ones in Doyle. In fact, John thought, they might be even more so, as he settled in with Sarah – fingers entwined – next to him. The chatter of the room was like a massage to his aching head; meaningless, unintelligible, not fraught with stress, not talk of cases and Latin and experiments and there was not a tall, skinny, boy-detective in sight.

Sarah curled her legs up as they talked, knees now almost resting on his thigh. Her smile was enchanting, her laughter mesmerising. Her hair framed her face perfectly, and John thought he might kiss her.

The film began. John wouldn’t remember later what film it was; something with too much swearing to be entertaining, he would think vaguely. He would remember, however, that he kept whispering what he hoped were funny one-liners in response to the movie, just to make Sarah giggle, until someone told them to shut up, which made Sarah giggle even more, so John didn’t mind.

Somehow John ended up with Sarah leaning against him, her head resting on his shoulder. He had one arm around her, and he didn’t think he’d been more comfortable in his life. He could feel her ribcage moving as she breathed, and somebody else’s weight on his own was something that he realised, with a little surprise, he had missed. He hadn’t held anyone like that in a very long time – he hadn’t realised quite how long until that night. Sure, sexual frustration was a problem at Bart’s (the lack of privacy had forced him to become very good at quashing his libido somewhat), but romantic frustration was something else. Especially with a lifestyle that was becoming, as had been pointed out to him many times by many people, increasingly dictated by his roommate, it was difficult to find time to be involved with anyone. And that meant going without… whatever this is.

***

Everything happens for a reason.

Cause and effect.

What goes around comes around.

Things come back.

The tea was cold. Disgusting, really. Why did he let it lose its warmth? How long has he had it in his hand? Did John give it to him? He must have done. Who else would have?

Boomerangs.

They come back.

Memories. So do they.

Homing pigeons.

Everything, apparently.

His toes were cold, too. No socks. Didn’t John give him any of those? Obviously not.

He had sifted through almost everything in his mind palace and still nothing on the case. It was infuriating. Boxes lay upturned, cupboard doors flung wide, books strewn across the floors. Nothing.

He was exhausted. He’d exhausted his mind, he’d exhausted the information in it, he’d exhausted himself. It was a long time to go without food and sleep, he knew that. He had also gone for longer.

Nobody. Nobody else would have given him tea.

What was different about this case? Why could he not see even a glimmer of a shadow of a dust mote of a lead? Why?

Planets. They come back. On their orbits around stars, they come back around. Or do they? He wasn’t sure. Wasn’t it the sun that orbited the planets? Perhaps he shouldn’t have deleted that when he’d dropped physics. Perhaps he should ask John.

Where is he?

Not here.

Why did he just take another sip of tea? It was vile, he’d just tried it and thought that it was and then took another sip. Idiot.

Planets coming back on their orbits – or stars or whatever it was – would imply, coming back would imply, that they had a starting point. Which they don’t. Obviously. Circles don’t have starting points.

He felt light-headed. And light-stomached. Nauseous. All normal. Normal for this period of time of starvation, he knew that.

John. John comes back. All the time. Even after he grits his teeth and shouts at him and purses his lips and walks out in that very careful way he does when he wants nothing more than to stamp. Even after his friends call him away to… to do whatever it is they do together. Even after that, John comes back.

Where is he?

Not here.

Where, though?

Badly-chosen words come back. They come back with a sting. He’d only really grasped that concept recently.

John had said that he didn’t have any leads because there wasn’t enough evidence. He would have liked to believe him, but he knew it was his own fault he couldn’t get anything.

What evidence do you have, Sherlock?

Mycroft. Past-Mycroft. Barely older than Sherlock was now, but three times his height, leering and patronising. Just like daddy.

Three words, big brother. We have three words in Latin. We have a missing can of American spray paint. We have no witnesses. We have handwriting that tells us nothing about the person who wrote it. Not even gender. The letters were androgynous. We have an hour spent interrogating the boy who told Irene to go to the bike sheds that night. To no avail. To the boy saying a sheet of paper under had seen slipped under his door with the words ‘garages’ and ‘eleven’ and ‘Tuesday’ and nothing else in size sixteen Calibri font. To the boy saying he’d put the paper in the recycling.

John was at the Frank movie night.

“I won’t be back for a while,” he’d said.

Yes, he remembered now.

We have hours spent hacking into the records of the porters’ lodge. We have no packages from any of the companies that ship that brand of spray paint to the UK entering the school. Ever. We have no way for it to be in the country, then, unless a relative sent it in to a pupil. But we have no way of knowing. We have everything happening for a reason, but we have nothing happening. We have no case.

Yo-yos.

They come back to you.

John wouldn’t be back for a while but he would come back. That’s what he does.

The tea was revolting.

That was the whole point of wedding rings. Circles not having starting points, that was the point. An eternal orbit of sentiment wrapped around flesh and blood and bones, infinity grasping something so finite.

Omnia causa fiunt.

***

“This is for a case.”

“Oh, really?” Victor raised an eyebrow. “I see. The case of Sherlock Holmes being Victor Trevor’s bitch, right?”

Sherlock looked around the basement that the hebetudinous human equivalent of backwash before him called his own. He could hear Victor’s father’s footsteps on the floor above.

“You’re no less pathetic than you were the last time I did this,” Sherlock said.

“Speak for yourself, darling,” Victor returned, and Sherlock rolled his eyes when the he turned his back to fetch the needles. “You’re still fucking gorgeous, though,” Victor turned around again, eyes raking up and down Sherlock’s body.

“There is quite literally nothing I like about you,” Sherlock said, trying to restrain himself from saying much more. Victor liked to get him angry, took some kind of twisted pleasure in it. He hadn’t quite been able to work out why, but Victor’s slimy smile made Sherlock want to punch it.

No; he corrected himself. He knew why. He didn’t like to think about it.

“You like the hallucinogens, though.”

Sherlock said nothing. Because, of course, Victor was right. The reason Sherlock hated him so much was that his face - his pointy, wretched face - had become the face of his… habit. In his mind palace, Victor sat waiting for him in a room that Sherlock did not construct. He knew that room would never be knocked down; come falling trees or demolition balls it would remain for as long as Sherlock lived. And he hated it.

One moment of weakness when he was fourteen. That had been it. He had been lonely and afraid and unhappy and angry and empty and so bored. But one moment of weakness had grown and spread like a tumour and here he was, again, nearly three years later, having crawled back to this repugnant drug addict, again, and he didn’t know whether he was describing himself or Victor. Again.

“You’re fierce tonight, babe,” Victor continued, trailing his fingers down Sherlock’s arm before holding it tight.

“Don’t call me that, I do not belong to you,” Sherlock replied, twisting out of the other boy’s grip.

“But you do, don’t you see?” Victor laughed. “I provide the drugs, and you can’t live without them. Ergo,” he took Sherlock’s arm again, raising it. “You belong to me.”

Sherlock tried to pull his arm away again, but Victor held fast. “What’s in that?” Sherlock asked, nodding at the needle poised above the soft skin of his inner elbow.

“Your favourite,” Victor purred.

Sherlock jerked his arm away. “No, not cocaine, not tonight. I wouldn’t be here if I wanted that.”

“What, then? I saved this for you, you know, this stuff is valuable,” Victor demanded.

“I… need to concentrate,” Sherlock said, the words sour in his mouth.

Victor hummed and crouched down and rummaged under his bed. When he straightened up again, he had his fist closed. He walked back to Sherlock and opened his fingers. In his palm lay two pills.

“Two?”

“One each,” Victor replied. He laughed at Sherlock’s expression. “Oh, come on, I haven’t been high with you in ages, it’ll be fun.”

“There’s a reason I don’t get high with you anymore,” Sherlock replied, reaching out to take one of the pills.

“Ah,” Victor cautioned, snapping his hand shut. He gave Sherlock a (vomit-inducing) smirk before raising his closed fist to his mouth.

Sherlock had desperately hoped, when he’d persuaded Victor to let him switch to the needles, he would never have found himself in that situation ever again – but he needed to concentrate. Needed to, it was physical. He was shaking slightly, he could feel sweat beading at his brow. He needed to solve that case or he feared what he might do. So when Victor raised both hands to tug on Sherlock’s hair, he gave in.

The kiss was hard and messy and there was too much tongue – Sherlock was trying to fish the pill out of Victor’s mouth but it seemed the boy had other ideas. He was moaning into his mouth and Sherlock fought the urge to shudder. Once one pill was in each mouth they broke apart and swallowed – Sherlock trying not to think about the other boy’s saliva going down with it – and almost immediately Victor’s lips were back to crushing his.

“I have missed that tongue, god,” Victor said, between slobbering all over the lower portion of Sherlock’s face in a manner Sherlock was sure he thought was erotic.

The high would come in about twenty minutes – no; less, he didn’t have any food inside him – and there was no way Sherlock was sticking around sober, or in any state of intoxication at all, really. He managed to free himself from Victor’s clutches.

“You’re leaving?” he whined.

“Thank you for the meth, Victor, I hope I never see you again,” Sherlock said, before turning out of Victor’s space and making his way over to the door, each step a bigger relief than the last.

“Hey, come on,” Victor followed him. “You didn’t even give me a blowjob for pulling that black out for you, and that was risky – ”

“As risky as hiding thousands of pounds worth of drugs under your bed?” Sherlock turned the knob, opening the door as he said it.

“Shh!” Victor hissed, closing the door. “So when am I going to get something back?”

“Tomorrow, I’ll pay you tomorrow,” Sherlock replied, wanting to be out of the house.

“Pay me with what?” Victor asked suggestively.

“With money,” he replied with emphasis. “Not that you need it, seems your little business is taking off,” he said, looking around the room – new jeans flung on the sofa, new phone on charge.

“Yeah, with money, okay,”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “One fifty.”

Victor drew his brows together. “Really? You’re actually going to pay me,” Sherlock glared at him. “You’re different these days. I’m not sure I like it.”

“One hundred and fifty pounds. For this and the power cut. I’ll find you tomorrow.” Sherlock opened the door.

“No kiss goodbye?” Victor called after him. Sherlock held his composure until he’d tiptoed out of the Trevor household, whereupon he shivered violently, wiped his face with his sleeve and spat a good few times onto the ground.

Addicts.

They come back.

***

He didn’t realise he was falling asleep until Sarah woke him up.

“John?”

He opened his eyes and rubbed them. The credits were rolling, the buzz of voices was back, people getting up and stretching, others lounging around still. He’d missed the entire film.

“Oh, god, sorry Sarah,” he mumbled, clearing his throat. His mouth was dry and tasted like something had died in there – he’d have to take a rain check on that kiss.

She laughed gently. “That’s okay,” she said. “Late night last night?”

“Ugh, you have no idea,” he passed his hands over his face. “I haven’t slept in days, Sherlock’s been keeping me up, on about this…” he realised he was rambling and stopped himself. “You don’t want to hear about him, sorry.”

“Stop apologising,” she pushed him playfully. “Do you want to stay for a bit, or go for a walk, or…?”

John knew he was in danger of falling asleep if he remained in the patch of his own body heat for much longer, so he agreed to the latter, and before he knew it, he and Sarah were walking – hand in hand – to nowhere in particular.

***

Victor’s house was a ten minute walk from school. The cold air prickled at his skin. Thorns tugged at his coat as he jumped over a hedge. His shoes were slick with dew. He raised his eyes to the sky. It was clear and mostly blank, only a few stars peppered here and there. The moon was rising behind him, making the lines of the football pitch shine brilliant white.

The football pitch already? That was quick.

The school buildings loomed ahead, their windows bright squares of light in the darkness. Two figures were walking across the grass ahead, facing away from him. One female, one male, joined at the hands. One of them was John. Even from this distance, Sherlock recognised his gait. The female figure was Sarah. Her gait was familiar too, but not as much.

“Enjoy the film?”

John spun around.

“Sherlock – where’d you come from?”

John was right – when did Sherlock get so close? He didn’t remember. “There was no need to borrow clothes, Sarah, John seems to like your usual frumpy style enough as it is.” Top belongs to a friend, keeps adjusting it, not a colour that suits her. “That necklace was your mother’s, yes? Needs a polish. When did you get your braces off, last year? Bite correction and teeth straightening, oh dear.”

“Sherlock, what the hell are you doing?” John had a hand on his chest, and had moved in front of Sarah slightly.

“New razor, John? Not that you really need to shave daily, of course, your facial hair – ”

“Sherlock! What is wrong with you?” John’s face was angry, covering up his concern. Sherlock could see that. Angry about what? He hadn’t said anything. Or did he – did he say something? Victor had told him once that he couldn’t control his mouth when he was high. He’d just been deducing, but that was involuntary – did he say it aloud? Oh. Oh. He did. Oh.

“I’m fine, John,” he said, trying to back-track through his stream of thought – or not-so-thought, more like monologue –  to find anything offensive. Perhaps… perhaps all of it had been… insensitive. He wasn’t even high yet, pills take longer than injections – oh, no, there was the pulse rate, climbing, climbing – he shouldn’t be around John when the high came proper, he’d surely notice, and for some reason Sherlock didn’t want that. No, he didn’t want that at all. “I’ll just leave you to your… whatever. Not that either of you were particularly enjoying – goodbye.” He cut himself off, John’s face was darkening. Darkening in the dark. Funny.

Sherlock turned on his heels and strode away into the night, leaving John with his mouth agape. He turned to Sarah, who had her arms folded.

“I… I don’t… I’m so sorry – ”

“Leave it,” she interjected. “He’s high. Go after him. It’s fine.”

“No, it’s not fine, I can’t believe he would – ”

“John.” She stepped into his space and rested her hands on his face. “Go.” The anger that was flaring in his stomach was doused. She pressed her lips to his, one point of warmth in all that cold, and he would have loved to have stayed, but she was right. He pulled back. Sarah smiled sadly. “He doesn’t have anyone else.”

John nodded.

***

“Sherlock!”

Sherlock pushed open Mycroft’s door. His older brother was sitting at his desk, working.

“What do you want?”

“Mummy sent me to my room.”

Mycroft turned around. “Then go to your room.”

“I thought we could do deductions.”

Mycroft sighed and put his pen down. “I see. Well, I deduce, little brother, that you were caught experimenting on Redbeard again.”

“He doesn’t mind!”

“He’s old, Sherlock. He doesn’t have the energy to protest anymore.”

Sherlock’s brain, little as it was, knew what that meant. “Shut up.”

There was the crunch of tyres on the gravel outside, the sound starting just by the front door and growing quieter. Sherlock ran to the window. He caught a glimpse of a flash of brown fur on the backseat before the car turned out of the drive.

“Did you say goodbye?”

“Sherlock!”

Even younger now. Long corridors, doctors. Tests. Endless tests. Scans and talking to specialists and different coloured pills, like a rainbow, all laid out on the table by the bed each morning.

Daddy and the nurse were talking outside the room, framed in the pane of glass in the door. They were slightly off-centre, and it annoyed him. They had originally been trying to work out why he wasn’t speaking yet and had then got curious about the rest of him. Some words Sherlock didn’t understand had been thrown around, and he had heard daddy and mummy arguing about something called ‘sociopath’ lots of times, like it was a disease. He knew he wasn’t sick. He just didn’t want to talk to anyone. Daddy scared him, mummy was too overbearing, Mycroft… Mycroft tried. But Sherlock still didn’t speak to him.

He spoke to Redbeard, though. All the time. Redbeard didn’t mind Sherlock’s endless chatter about experiments. He listened raptly when Sherlock read him poems he’d found in the library. He wagged his tail and looked as if he was smiling when he was upset, and licked his face, and made Sherlock forget why he had been crying in the first place. He was a perfect conversation partner. Sherlock just sometimes wished he would say something back.

When they finally let him out of the hospital bed, Sherlock ran on his short legs into the corridor. Mycroft stood at the end of it - not smiling, but something close to it. He bent down and unclipped the lead and in a scratching of claws on the polished floor the dog was bounding towards him –

“Hello Redbeard! Here boy, come on,” he encouraged, his voice croaky from disuse. “Come to me, it’s okay, it’s alright.”

“Sherlock!”

Redbeard was barking at him. Tongue hanging out, panting, barking, saying,

“Sherlock!”

Dogs can’t speak, Sherlock. Don’t be ridiculous.

“Sherlock?”

They must be able to, that was Redbeard – no two ways about it.

“Hey, Sherlock?”

No – Redbeard died, remember? That’s not him, that’s –

“Go away, John.”

His roommate had caught up with him, and was now walking beside him, a little breathless. Doyle wasn’t far now. Would just have to get to their room without John seeing him – and then what? Lock their door? How? With what? Barricade it?

Concrete replaced grass underfoot.

John was saying something about not being stupid – him or Sherlock? Imperative or statement? Who cares. Sherlock didn’t. Or did he? Maybe. No. Everything was a little muddled – it wasn’t supposed to be like this -

“Be like what?”

Oh. How much of that did he say aloud?

“How much of what? Jesus, Sherlock, what’s muddled, you’re never muddled, what’ve you done to yourself?”

Got a new cleaner in the mind palace – don’t like their way of tidying much, John.

“Fuck, Sherlock – Sherlock – ” John grabbed his arm, trying to halt him. “Look at me – ”

“No – ”

“Why? Sher– fucking hell…” Sherlock heard John curse, as he wrenched himself free from his grip and continued walking, not looking at the other boy, because then he would see – and why did he care? He didn’t. He didn’t.

They turned a corner and Sherlock was immediately blinded. He stopped. A rushing noise, growling, and a blaze of white light and –

John pushed him in the side, hard, out of the way of the oncoming car. Heard him calling him an idiot. Calling him stupid.

Trust me, John, I know. I know.

He blinked the dark back onto his retinas. There was Doyle. He sped up.

“Hey, come on, daddy-long-legs, slow down for a sec – ” John was protesting, a little too good-naturedly, trying to get a look at Sherlock.

Nope. Six metres, four, three, one – door. Code. Inside. Stairs.

He jerked backwards, nearly falling. His coat was caught on something. In something. In John's fist.

“Come here,” John said, "now."

“Case, John – ”

“Sherlock.” There was that tone again, the one he’d used with Anderson last month. No-nonsense; commanding; dark. Sherlock tried to run up the stairs, but John pulled on his coat, dragging Sherlock back down, shoving him in front of him, grasping him by the shoulders and forcing him to face him. Sherlock turned away. “Look at me.”

He couldn’t.

John grabbed his face and turned it roughly. The concern of earlier had all but dissolved. He prised his eyelids open and peered at his pupils – left first, then right.

Sherlock knew what John had seen. It confirmed what Sarah had no doubt told him. She was clever, and so was John, but he didn’t want to see what she had. That was the problem with John. Letting sentiment get in the way all too often.

John’s face closed and he dropped his hands. “You’re high.”

“You kissed Sarah.” Smudge of tinted lip balm in the corner of his mouth.

That threw John a little, a flicker of confusion passing over his face, and Sherlock claimed a private victory. Victory over what? He wasn’t sure.

“And? You’re fucking high!” John hissed, glancing about the foyer lest someone overhear.

“And? You’re going out with a boring – ” Sherlock shut his mouth and ran upstairs, before he could say anything else. He wasn’t too sure why Sarah had become ammunition, but his methamphetamine-riddled brain had seemed to think it was a good tactic.

John’s hands had been freezing on his skin.

John was about to run after Sherlock when Lestrade wandered out of his house in his slippers.

“Trouble in paradise?”

“What?” John was having a little trouble processing things just then. He felt like someone had tipped a bucket of water over his head. Someone with almond-shaped eyes and a penchant for self-destruction.

“Well, I heard you two fighting and – ”

Paradise, what? Trouble in – fuck – Lestrade thinks we’re – ?

“Oh, no, we’re not – we aren’t – he’s not – ”

Lestrade held up his hands. “Go talk to him, yeah? That’s all I’m saying. He’s been a lot better since you two started – ”

“Yes, sir,” John interrupted. There was no winning. “I’m going to go and find him.”

“Good lad,” Lestrade smiled. “And get to bed before I give you detention. It’s late.”

***

John stormed down the lower sixth corridor. He had been annoyed about Sherlock interrupting his one night of peace, then angry about Sherlock doing that thing he did with the deductions. Then worry had slid into the corner of his mind – he’s high. Then the worry had spread like blood in milk when Sherlock didn’t answer when John called his name. Then there was panic as he walked straight in front of the car – what did you do that for, Sherlock, get out of the road, you idiot – then anger again as he refused to meet his eyes. But when he did, those eyes, those eyes… Pupils blown wide, a sliver of grey iris ringing black holes.

As he marched down the passage John didn’t know what there was. He knew the case had pushed Sherlock, but he didn’t realise how far. The thought of him relapsing had never crossed his mind. John had thought he’d been clean. Apart from when he’d turned up at his house over the holiday. And then in his kitchen – “At school?” “No. Not regularly.” Then, days later, “I slipped up.”

He hadn’t been clean at all. Of course he hadn’t. He never had been. John had just, what, assumed? Hoped? Blindly believed? That Sherlock hadn’t been pushed that far, not far enough to go back there. But, of course he had, and John should have seen. Should have at least considered the possibility. The signs were there. They weren’t even hints, it might as well have been written in yellow paint on the wall, you idiot, John, you fucking stupid

Mike stuck his head out of his door. “All okay?”

“Not now, Mike,” John replied. He would apologise later. He had to get to Sherlock before he was dragged where John couldn’t reach him.

John reached room twenty-one. Put a hand on the door. Anger would not work. Calmed himself. A little. Not much. Not at all, really. He entered.

Sherlock was not in the room.

It was empty.

Shit.

The roof.

John’s heart leapt into his mouth. Running down the corridor, Mike’s eyes on his back. Round corners, up stairs, through doors – top floor. Low ceiling. Just as Mike had said.

The hatch was open, pouring grey light through. John reached up but his fingers only grazed the lip.

The laundry room was at the end of the passage. John flicked on the light, found a basket, tipped the clothes in it onto the floor. Set it, upside down, on the floor under the hatch. Stepped up, reached up, jumped up and pushed and he was through.

The remains of a heavy padlock lay by the side of the hole. There was a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, its harsh light throwing unnatural shadows into the corners of the room.

John went through a doorway into where Mike must have found the mattress and the violin. It was bare now. There was a window to his left. It was open. John climbed through.

He stood up. He was on the roof of the house, a flat part, and for a split second he forgot why he was there as his breath was taken away how high up he was. Sherlock was sitting a few metres away, his legs drawn up to his chest, swathed in his coat. John felt his chest loosen. He exhaled.

John sat next to his friend. From there, he could see the school stretching out in front of them, a jumble of dark rooves and playing fields under a featureless sky.

“Come downstairs, Sherlock,” John said. “Lestrade’ll be doing his rounds in a minute.”

Sherlock didn’t reply for a moment. Then, “I’m thinking.”

“You can think in our room.” Sherlock looked at him. Wide eyes, unblinking. John held a neutral expression. “You don’t want to be found on a roof with pupils like those. Come on.”

John got up and waited for Sherlock to do the same. Which he eventually did.

On their way out, John pocketed the broken padlock. Sherlock noticed.

“I’ll tell Lestrade that we had a spat and you came up here. I won’t mention the drugs. Okay?”

Sherlock didn’t say anything. His silence was worryingly at odds with his fountain of deductions on the football pitch. A silent Sherlock was never a good sign, but especially so that night.

When they returned to their room, Sherlock didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He stood in the centre of the room, looking at the web of the case on the wall, chewing his lip and arms hanging limply at his side.

John leant against his ladder. “Any developments?”

Sherlock said nothing. John shook his head to himself and rubbed his eyes. Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, exhaustion was tightening its grip again.

There was a sudden rustling and flapping, and John opened his eyes to see Sherlock frantically shaking off his coat, leaving it where it fell on the floor, and roughly clearing a space on top of his chest of drawers. Numerous objects fell to the floor, and John rushed to catch them before they broke.

“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. He wasn’t expecting an answer, so he wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t get one. Sherlock knelt on his chest of drawers, bringing the case profile on the wall to his eye level. He touched some of the items he had on the wall – the photo John took of the graffiti, the words ‘garages’, ‘eleven’ and ‘Tuesday’ in his unintelligible scrawl, the pins piercing the map of the school.

John placed the fallen items on the desk, and picked up Sherlock’s coat. It was very heavy, heavier than he’d thought it would be. He laid it on the back of Sherlock’s chair. He was about to change into his pyjamas – not that he thought he was going to be able to sleep – when there was a knock on the door.

Sherlock and John looked at each other. It was Lestrade, John had come to know his heavy, steady gait. Sherlock’s pupils were still abnormal, and he’d get expelled if he was caught. John was pretty sure Sherlock wouldn’t care if that happened – in fact, he’d probably be over the moon – but John was also pretty sure that Sherlock, while a genius in many areas, possessed extraordinary idiocy in others, especially areas concerning his own wellbeing. That was John’s department.

John opened the door just wide enough so that it wouldn’t look suspicious, but narrowly enough so that Lestrade couldn’t see into the room.

“Hi, John,” Lestrade said. “Find Sherlock?”

“Yeah, he’s – uh – can I talk to you?” Without waiting for an answer, John slipped out of the room, closing the door behind him. Lestrade looked a little taken aback, but when John produced the broken padlock from his pocket, his brows furrowed. “He was on the roof,” John explained quietly. “Just sitting – nothing, uh, illegal was up there, either. He must have managed to break this somehow.” He handed Lestrade the twisted metal.

Lestrade turned it over in his hands. He studied John, who suddenly remembered that Lestrade was an ex-police officer and tried his very hardest not to look guilty.

“Okay,” he sighed finally. “I’ll get it sealed up better this time. Thanks for telling me. Night, John.”

“Goodnight, sir,” John replied, and watched Lestrade retreat down the corridor before going back into room twenty one.

***

After a while, Sherlock’s high began to wear off. He became less frantic, but more reclusive inside himself, and John became no less worried as a result.

John, for lack of anything helpful to do, made them both tea, and when he returned to room twenty one, when he stretched out his arm, when he offered the mug to him, his roommate looked up at him from his seat on the floor like he didn’t recognise him at all. It was just for a moment, but in that moment, in those eyes, John saw that Sherlock had opened all the windows and doors of his mind palace, the curtains fluttering in the biting breeze, all the lights off, and he stood on the porch with a box of matches in his fingers.

Then it passed. Clarity, recognition, lucidity settled uneasily back into his eyes. Sherlock took the tea without a word, and the porcelain mug had more colour than his skin.

John’s veins were pumping lead around his body; he was becoming heavier with every heartbeat, and pulling on his pyjama trousers was a herculean effort. But he couldn’t sleep. If he did, who would watch Sherlock?

He doesn’t have anyone else.

So he sat on the floor behind his roommate, pillow behind his back, leaning against his ladder, and drew.

Didn’t draw anything in particular; too tired for that. Lines, splitting space into negatives and positives, maybe forming a shape, maybe not.

Sherlock was still. So was John. The world had frozen, held in place by tendrils of the mist that was descending outside the window. The only movement was pencil over paper, the only sound the whispers made when they came into contact. The night deepened. Ever so, ever so slowly, all the blood drained from Sherlock’s body, out through his fingertips, trickling from under his nails. When John gasped his name, the boy turned around, and his eyes were wide and unblinking and their irises were the colour of a sky before snow, and blood welled up like tears and spilled from their corners.

John jolted awake.

“What time is it…” he mumbled to himself, rubbing his hands over his eyes.

“Three.”

John ceased his search for his phone, and looked to the origin of the voice.

Sherlock was perched atop the fridge, nose inches from the window.

“Fuck…” John stretched, joints cracking. “I didn’t know I’d fallen asleep,”

There was a small thud as Sherlock rested his head against the glass.

John studied him. He was startlingly pale, almost monochrome, and his breathing was shallow.

“How’re you feeling?” he asked, standing up. It was ambitious of him to hope for a reply, and he wasn’t given one. “Hey.” He stepped closer to Sherlock, and repeated, softer this time, “How’re you feeling?”

There was a pause, before Sherlock turned his head and gave him a look so empty of conviction that John’s instinct kicked in and he raised a hand to his roommate’s face. His skin was icy. “You need to sleep.” Sherlock turned back to staring out of the window. “Sherlock, come on.” John said. “You mustn’t do this to yourself.”

“Mustn’t I?” Sherlock said quietly.

“No, you mustn’t. There is literally nothing more you can do about the case, you’ve worked yourself half to death.”

“Half empty or half full?”

John cocked his head. “What?”

“Half full, I think,” Sherlock mumbled.

John shifted his weight to his left leg. He pursed his lips against rising nausea. “Sherlock. Please.”

Sherlock’s eyes flickered for an instant, but one would otherwise think he hadn’t heard the plea. And it was a plea, a desperate one, and John didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to get Sherlock out of danger, and –

Breathe. In, and out. In, and out. He wasn’t going to panic. He was going to stand up straighter, he was going to go to Sherlock’s bed, drag down his duvet, and wrap it around his friend. He wasn’t going to worry when Sherlock didn’t seem to notice. He was going to go into the kitchen, treading quietly on the squeaky floorboards. He was not going to fall down the stairs. He was going to grip onto the banister until his knuckles turned white, but he was not going to trip.

He was going to clutch onto the edges of the sink and he was not going to be sick. He was going to fill the kettle and he was not going to be sick. He was going to put two teabags into two mugs and he was going to pour the boiling water over them and he was not going to be sick. Milk in both, two sugars for Sherlock – keep him going – take out the tea bags and back to their room.

And he was not sick.

Sherlock looked so small and frail, with his big hair and bony face, wrapped in his duvet on top of the fridge. John set his own mug on his desk and went up to him, and held out the mug for him to take, but Sherlock was far away, out of reach again. John took Sherlock’s hand and wrapped it around the mug, such cold against such warmth. The hand curled around it and John slowly retracted his own, lest Sherlock forget and let his fingers go limp.

But he didn’t. He rested the mug in his lap, and it was a small relief.

Three in the morning; six hours until the school rose from its groggy slumber, the only lie-in of the week never satisfactory. Six hours in which Sherlock could well fall comatose. Six hours, then, in which John wouldn’t sleep. He’d already gone for seventy two, six more wouldn’t kill him. Hopefully it wouldn’t kill his roommate, either.

John supposed the only logical thing to do was drag his own duvet down from his bed and wrap himself in it, as he had done with Sherlock. He sat on the floor, leaning his back against the fridge, facing away from his friend but still feeling a degree of control due to their proximity. Perhaps he felt even more in control than he would have done had he been facing Sherlock; it was trivial and childish, but that way, it almost felt as if he was guarding Sherlock, facing the door of the room as he was. Not that the thing Sherlock needed guarding from was going to knock politely on their door, of course. It had already slid in through the air vents of Sherlock’s mind, down chimneys and between bricks. John was just a novelty draught excluder in comparison, but he was trying.

He had turned all the lights off, in some vain hope of trying to coax Sherlock towards sleep, so he couldn’t see much as his eyes wandered around the room. The lines of the bedframes stretching away from him on either side towards the corridor wall, the wardrobes, the chests of drawers, the door. The desks underneath the beds, Sherlock’s covered in a jumble of science equipment – the long, arching neck of a microscope stood out in the dark, as did the elegant curves of his violin. John realised Sherlock hadn’t played in nearly two days.

I often play the violin when I’m thinking.

Time trudged on.

John played a game on his phone (brightness turned down to barely-visible, sound muted). He finished his tea. He drew a little, just the bare lines of the bed frames from his perspective. He rested his head against the fridge, felt its humming reverberate through his skull, taking comfort in its constancy. He thought about Harry, wondered if she was sleeping or out with her friends. He thought about his mum, and hoped she wasn’t dreaming about dad, because when she woke up, she’d forget for just a moment. And then she’d remember. And it would feel just the same as it had the day after. He thought about his dad, and remembered him reading to him to get him to fall asleep. His voice, a little rough around the edges, softened around the words, lulling him with their rhythm and cadence.

"Ninety-nine zillion,

Nine trillion and two

Creatures are sleeping!

So…

How about you?"

Not yet, dad. John thought to himself. Not yet.

He wondered about Sarah. About whether they would meet up again. About why Sherlock had used their kiss as a counter-attack. He was too tired to come to any even semi-solid conclusions about her, except that she probably wouldn’t want to see him again. Which was fair enough, seeing as a certain roommate seemed set on ruining every date they went on, and they were pretty piss poor excuses for dates anyway. He was too tired to be upset just yet.

John thought about Mary. Wondered what she was doing, and whether she still wondered about him sometimes.

He drifted in and out of consciousness for an indeterminable period of time. The pressure in his head was mounting, his heart rate was sinking. Sleep was calling.

He scrolled through the headlines of the newly-broken day on his phone, but even the atrocities listed there couldn’t stave off exhaustion.

A shiver gripped his body and he tucked his toes under the duvet, before remembering that Sherlock didn’t have any socks on, and if his own feet were chilly, then Sherlock’s would be hypothermic.

He shuddered as the duvet slipped from his shoulders as he stood up, hoping the drop in temperature would clear his head a little. He opened Sherlock’s sock drawer – all the pairs within were arranged very neatly in some sort of order John was too sleepy to try to decipher – and took out the thickest pair he could find.

Sherlock looked as if he was sleeping. His lips were parted slightly, eyes shut tight. As John stood next to him, however, Sherlock’s eyelids opened, and he fixed John with a quizzical look.

John held out the socks. “I’m not going to put them on for you,”

Sherlock on any other day would have rolled his eyes, and John wished he did, but he just took the offered socks and began to put them on.

John unlocked his phone – six sixteen in the morning, it told him. The darkness outside had not yet begun to lift, and the night felt endless. He settled back against the fridge and shut his eyes. His vigil was far from over.

Chapter Text

John was semi-delirious, semi-unconscious and wholly exhausted when the school began to wake. He had somehow found his way to the floor over the past few hours, and now he was curled up at the foot of the fridge. He sat up.

Sherlock was no longer on top of the fridge. He was lying on his back on his bed, fully dressed. John immediately dampened down the spark of hope that flared at the sight of his friend looking relatively normal, because if there was one thing he’d learned in Sherlock’s company, nothing was ever as it first appeared.

“Morning,” he said, deciding neutrality was the best way forward.

“I made tea,” came the response.

“You what?” John replied, incredulous.

“It’s on your desk.”

“Wow,” John said, upon going to the desk and seeing that the tea was, in fact, real. “Thanks.” He clutched the mug in his hands, absorbing all the warmth he could. “So. Are you feeling, uh, better?” It was only then that he noticed what looked like three large, circular plasters on his friend’s arm. “Are those… is that three nicotine patches?”

“It’s a three patch problem,” his friend replied.

John thought about trying to convince Sherlock to drop the case again, but previous attempts had not ended well, so held his tongue. He sipped his tea. “Are you coming into town today?”

“Town?”

“Yeah,” John replied. Upon seeing his friend’s blank expression, he elaborated, “It’s Sunday, Sherlock, so there’s a trip into town, like every other Sunday.”

“I knew that,” Sherlock replied, a little too hastily. “I think I’m going to stay here.”

“And do what? Sherlock, you can’t do anything more, you’ll make yourself ill.”

Sherlock sat up suddenly. “Stop mothering me, John, I’m fine.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point,” John replied. “Please come. It’ll take your mind off the case.”

“Oh, will it? In that case, of course I’ll come, spend the day surrounded by idiots, that’ll be invigorating.”

“Not everything has to be about cases and mystery and impossible problems, just let yourself relax for two fucking minutes for once,” John replied, trying to keep his voice down.

“Ah, yes, and how would I do that? A spa day, maybe? A nice stroll in the woods? A bottle of wine by the fire? I don’t relax, John. I need work, I need cases, or I’ll go insane.”

“You’re insane already! Just come into town. You can deduce me things, call me an idiot, interfere with something – try and break into the police station, anything,” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “God, you can be so fucking annoying sometimes.”

“And you’re such a paragon yourself,” Sherlock retorted.

“Hey, I’m trying to help here,” John said. “You’re a difficult, miserable sod, but I’m trying, alright?”

“I’m not going into town, John.”

***

“I’m going into town,” Sherlock said. “So I can’t stay and chat.”

“You? You never go into town,” Victor replied, narrowing his eyes. He didn’t even jump at Sherlock’s sudden appearance. Disappointing. Victor was in a green uniform with heavy boots, raking a flower bed. He didn’t usually work Sundays; punishment from his father for something. Probably caught high again.

Sherlock handed him a fistful of money and made to walk away, but Victor grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “What’s up with you? Going into town, not coming to see me for months, what’s going on?”

“Nothing’s going on, Victor, I simply despise you.”

“Sherlock?”

Sherlock looked over his shoulder. John was walking towards him, looking concerned. Always so concerned, that boy. It was annoying.

“Who’s that?”

“None of your business. I have to go,” Sherlock replied under his breath, making to walk away again, but Victor held fast.

“None of my business my arse,” he said.

“Sherlock? The coach is about to leave.”

Victor looked over Sherlock’s shoulder at the approaching John, then back at Sherlock, then back to John, before his eyes settled on Sherlock’s, a grin spreading across his face. “No,” he laughed. “No way.”

“What?” Sherlock spat.

“Don’t tell me you think he’s your friend?”

“Sherlock, come on!” John said.

“You’ve never had a friend in your life, I’m the only person that’s ever come close to being your friend,” Victor hissed.

“Piss off, Victor,” Sherlock tried to tug his arm away, but Victor’s grip was vice-like, and Sherlock could feel the man’s nails through his coat.

“It won’t last, you know,” the man said. “Whatever trick you’re pulling to make him think you’re worthy, it won’t last.”

“Do I hear a hint of jealousy?” Sherlock said.

Victor opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment, John finally appeared at Sherlock’s side. “Sherlock, the coach is going to leave without us, let’s go.”

“Yes, let’s,” Sherlock replied, not taking his eyes off Victor, who was glaring at him with a malignant half-smile. “If you’ll excuse me.”

After a moment, the man released his grip on Sherlock’s arm. The knuckles of his hands were white where they both now gripped the rake.

Sherlock turned around, ignoring John’s questioning expression. As they walked away, Sherlock stared straight ahead, avoiding John’s eyes.

“Remember, it won’t last, Sherlock,” Victor called after them. “See you soon.”

“What won’t last? Who was that? Sherlock?” John asked in a low tone.

“Nobody,” Sherlock replied.

“He seemed angry,” John said. “What did you say to him?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Did he threaten you?”

Sherlock looked at John. There was genuine worry there; it reached his eyes, was in the purse of his lips, in his body language. “No. He’s a coward. A psychopath, but a coward.” John looked back at Victor. “John. Don’t worry about him.”

They had reached the coach, and joined the shortening queue in front of the door.

“I’m not worried about him, I’m worried about you,” John muttered.

At that, an odd rush of…  something made Sherlock stop in his tracks, so that John had to shove him forward with the moving queue. He took a breath and quashed it, thoughts returning to Victor.

He was jealous. It was scary, possessive, threatening jealousy, but he was jealous. It was plain as day. Jealous that Sherlock had a friend – he’d used that word, friend – other than him. Not that Victor had ever been anything more to Sherlock than a source of a high. But Victor had obviously thought differently. And had thought that John was his friend.

Did John think of himself as Sherlock’s friend? Sherlock had never considered it. That word had never come to mind. Didn’t know at all how John felt about him, actually. Were they friends? They were certainly in each other’s company quite frequently. But John had friends. Stamford, his rugby team – he appeared to be everyone’s friend. He smiled at everyone and anyone, chatted to everyone as if they were his long-lost siblings. Sherlock was nothing special to him.

“Where do you want to sit?”

They were roommates. John, so polite, so amicable, had to be friendly towards him. It was what roommates did.

“Sherlock?”

They were on the coach. Sherlock hadn’t realised. They were standing in the aisle, and John had asked him a question.

“Uh,” Sherlock replied.

“John!” someone was calling the shorter boy, and John turned around. A boy was standing up in his seat. Lancaster. James. In Golding house, once started a food fight at breakfast, had been suspended for it. “Spare seat here if you want it.”

“See you later, John,” Sherlock said, and made to sit down.

“What?” John caught his arm, confused. “That’s all right, Jamie,” he said, turning back to the other boy. “I've got one. Thanks, though.”

The Lancaster boy said something in return and sat down. John turned back to Sherlock.

“Aren’t you – ” Sherlock began.

“No, you great wally, I’m sitting with you,” John laughed, shoving him into a seat.

Don’t tell me you think he’s your friend?

Sherlock had never had a friend. Victor had been right about that. And he had never expected he ever would. Sherlock had been told that he never would. Had been told he was antisocial, found it difficult to build relationships with people. Had had numerous diagnoses thrown at him, none of which he cared to remember – but they all meant the same thing. He was friendless and would remain that way.

I’m worried about you.

At first he hadn’t believed it, but he got older. And then Redbeard was taken away. And Mycroft went to boarding school. And the kids from the village had thrown stones at him on his second day at the primary school. So he didn’t go back. Spent his childhood in the family home. And then had been sent to Bart’s. And had been ostracised and mocked and punched and kicked and laughed at.

You can tell me, you know.

John didn’t laugh at him. Not maliciously, anyway. He laughed at him like he thought Sherlock was amusing. John didn’t mock him – not maliciously. He mocked him like he was joking. Like he meant the opposite of what he was saying. He mocked him with a gentleness that Sherlock had only observed from afar.

He didn’t hit him. He touched him, every now and again. A hand on his arm, a hand on his back, a hand on his face. Like it was natural, like he wasn’t thinking about it. Again, something Sherlock had only ever observed from afar. He had always wondered how a relationship progressed to the ease that two people could allow each other to touch and be touched without having to ask, without any particular purpose – not sexual, not romantic. Just touched. He had never understood the motivation behind such contact. He still didn’t understand completely, but he was beginning to. It was a non-verbal confirmation of something. Of their relationship, of its status and modus operandi? Simply of each other’s existence?

I’m trying, alright?          

He had been surprised to find that it wasn’t unpleasant, John touching him. He usually found being touched uncomfortable at best. Victor’s touch made his skin crawl. A stranger brushing against him in the street felt like an invasion. Irene’s touch felt numb. But when John touched him, there was no discomfort, no urge to recoil. It felt like an extension of a conversation, an exchange. A dialogue. Usually a question - “Are you alright?” “What’s the matter?” Sherlock never replied in the same manner, never touched back. He wasn’t sure he knew how to. No – he knew how to, knew how to manipulate touch to get what he wanted. Of course he did. But he didn’t know how to touch without pretending to be somebody else.

The bus shuddered underneath him and a teacher began to walk the aisle.

“Seatbelts,” she instructed, peering at the kids’ laps.

Sherlock looked at John. He was sitting quietly, watching the people around him. Someone on the other side of the aisle called his name, and John’s face instantly split into a smile, genuine as ever, and Sherlock watched as he chatted away merrily. John sometimes talked to him like that. Which was odd because Sherlock didn’t give him much of a response when he talked about menial things. John knew that he would get that response, but he chatted to him anyway. Odd.

“Seatbelt, Holmes,” the teacher repeated, and Sherlock obeyed as the coach lurched and pulled away from the curb.

***

“Fresh air,” John said happily as he stretched, Sherlock clambering down off the coach behind him.

“The journey wasn’t that long,” his friend said.

“Forty minutes feels like years on a coach,” John replied. “So,” he quietened a little as one of the teachers began speaking to the assembled students about the time to reconverge, “what do you want to do?”

“Solve the case,” Sherlock whispered back.

Apart from that, snarky bastard,” John replied. “No – I know what you want,” he continued as Sherlock opened his mouth to reply. “You want lunch.” Sherlock closed his mouth and gave John a look. “Okay, maybe you don’t,” John said, unfased, “but I do, and considering I didn’t have any breakfast, I think brunch is a top priority.”

“So go with your rugby friends,” Sherlock countered with an audible pout, as the group of students dispersed.

John rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Sherlock.”

***

“Bacon sarnie?”

“I don’t want anything.”

“Bacon sarnie it is.” John shuffled forward in the queue while rummaging in his pockets for the cash, Sherlock trailing reluctantly behind.

Once they had their food, they picked their way through the tiny café to a table near the window – Sherlock was much more amenable to John’s attempts at feeding him if he could people-watch at the same time, John had found. Unfortunately, the next table was occupied by a posse of greasy-haired boys from Dickens – including Anderson and Raz – whom John had become… familiar with in recent days. As the two passed their table, there was a bout of sniggering and John picked out a couple of unsavoury words in their conversation, but ignored it.

“You really needn’t have bought that second one,” Sherlock said, indicating the second bacon sandwich John had set down on the table as they sat. “I’m not hungry.”

“Mhmm,” John replied, not believing him for one second.

“It’s just going to go to waste,” Sherlock pressed as John sunk his teeth into his sandwich.

“No, it won’t,” John said, swallowing. “If you really don’t want to finish it – ” Sherlock opened his mouth to interject something, probably concerning the fact that finishing implied starting, but John took no heed, “ – then I will. I have been told I have a bottomless stomach, so we’ll be fine.”

John took another bite, watching his friend across the table. He was regarding the sandwich in front of him with an expression of nausea mixed with intense but barely-masked hunger. His hands, pale and thin, where they rested on the table, were shaking slightly.

“Hey,” John said, wiping his hands on a napkin. “Hold out your hands.” Sherlock obeyed, lifting his hands off the table. Now with nothing to rest on, their trembling was more pronounced. John sighed. “See?” he said, sandwiching one of Sherlock’s hands in between both of his. Sherlock met his gaze. The snickering at the next table erupted again, with a few whistles and cat-calls thrown in, but John paid no attention. Neither did Sherlock. “If your blood sugar drops any lower, you’ll pass out. And that won’t be very pleasant for either of us.”

“Get a room!” came a shout from the next table. John dropped Sherlock’s hand.

“Ignore them,” John said as Sherlock’s eyes flicked to the source of the shout.

“Who are they?”

“Just a few arseholes, with some of whom I have the pleasure of sharing a rugby team. Been giving me a bit of grief in training recently,” he took a mouthful of tea. “Apparently, being your friend is some sort of occupational hazard around here.”

Something passed over Sherlock’s face at that.

“What?”

Sherlock avoided his eyes.

“Sherlock?”

“You said – you said ‘friend’,” Sherlock said quietly, looking at the wall over John’s shoulder.

John watched as Sherlock’s gaze dropped to his hands. John had never seen him so vulnerable-looking, that robust chainmail of his falling away despite his best efforts. Something tightened in his chest.

“Yeah,” he replied after a moment. “Yeah, of course I did,”

Sherlock cleared his throat uncomfortably.

“And as a friend, as your friend, I am asking you to eat,” he continued softly, nudging the second plate towards him. Sherlock met his eyes for a fleeting moment, before hesitantly picking up the sandwich.

***

“Any luck?” John called. The top of Sherlock’s head popped up over the shelf where John had sent him to search in the next aisle.

“No,” came the reply.

John scrubbed a hand over his face in frustration. He lamented the organisation – or seeming lack thereof – of Boots under his breath and continued raking the shelves with his eyes.

“John, this it?” An arm appeared over the shelf, holding up a bottle of lurid pink mouthwash.

“No,” John replied. “I want the kind without alcohol in it,” the arm disappeared. “The other stuff makes me want to throw up.”

“Hey, lovebirds.” Three smirking boys who had been sitting in the café earlier stood at the end of an aisle perpendicular to the ones John and Sherlock were in, the tallest one doing the talking. “The lube’s over here.”

The other two cronies burst into loud laughter, and John could feel anger coiling in his gut. He was about to open his mouth to retaliate when Sherlock rounded the corner, not acknowledging the boys’ presence.

“John,” Sherlock said, and John dragged his eyes away from the boys. Sherlock’s arms were cradling several bottles of mouthwash. “Found it. It was three for two. Let’s go.”

***

“Why does it annoy you?” Sherlock asked as he and John made their way down the main street.

“Why does what annoy me?”

“Anderson and his Neanderthals.”

“Because it’s annoying. Simple as that,” John replied. Sherlock huffed. John thought about leaving the conversation there, but before he could stop himself, he continued. “And because what they’re accusing us of is that – an accusation.” Sherlock cocked his head. “Like it’s something to be accused of. A crime. I don’t know,” he sighed. “Can they not just grow up already, Jesus...”

Sherlock hummed, but John knew his mind was elsewhere. He seemed better after their meal earlier – he had ended up finishing his sandwich, downing all his tea and half of John’s when he wasn’t looking. His hands had stopped shaking and he seemed more alert, deducing left, right and centre.

“So, what do you want to do?” John checked his watch. “We’ve got about, ooh, two and a half hours to kill before… ” he looked up to find himself alone. “Sherlock?” He spun around, trying not to look like an idiot, finally spotting Sherlock with his face practically pressed up against the window of a tiny menswear boutique that looked like it had been there for at least a century, gathering dust and an air of snobbery you could basically smell.

John came up behind him. “What are you drooling at?”

“Those,” Sherlock said, indicating a pair of leather gloves on the delicately-posed mannequin in the window display. “Mycroft dropped my old ones in the lake a few months ago and I haven’t been able to find a suitable pair since.”

“Why did he – ”

“Because I filled his shoes with pond water.”

“Why did you – ”

“Deerskin, I would say. I like the stitching, look like they have a lining as well, perfect,” Sherlock muttered to himself before abruptly striding into the shop.

Sherlock looked right at home in the low-ceilinged boutique, wearing – surprise, surprise – a smart shirt tucked into his high-quality jeans, and, of course, that bloody coat of his. John, on the other hand, with his worn shoes and unzipped hoodie – which he had just noticed a ketchup stain on – regretted following Sherlock in the moment he stepped over the threshold.

As Sherlock spoke to one of the assistants, John wandered around the shop. It seemed they mainly sold suits, and no doubt dabbled in tailoring as well. He peered at a price tag and nearly fell over – he looked back at Sherlock, wondering if he was going to be able to pay for the gloves, but immediately felt stupid for even questioning it as his friend whipped out a debit card, to the surprise of the assistant.

Sherlock emerged from the shop with a triumphant smile on his face. When they were not five metres from the shop, he dumped the packaging in a nearby bin and slipped one glove onto his hand.

“Perfect,” he said. “These will do wonderfully. Feel the lining, John, it’s sublime.” He handed John the other glove while flexing the fingers of the gloved hand.

The leather was smooth but strong, supple but not too elastic. The detail stitched along the bottom and up the fingers was subtly elegant, and the colour was a flawless black sheen which caught the light like snake scales. John rubbed the lining with two fingers and raised his eyebrows in surprise, to Sherlock’s amusement.

“It’s so soft,” he said. “Like… “

“Like the down feathers of an angel,” Sherlock said.

“Calm down, Lord Byron,” John said, a smile spreading across his face to match the one on Sherlock’s. He reluctantly handed back the glove. “How much were those?”

Sherlock put the other glove on. “A little overpriced, but not extortionate for what they are.”

“So way above my pay grade, then,” John assumed. “Couldn’t you just get Mycroft to get them for you for your birthday or something? Avoid paying for them yourself?”

“And leave my poor hands exposed over the harsh winter? I don’t think so.”

This confused John a little. “When is your birthday?”

“July the sixth,” Sherlock replied, shoving his hands into his pockets, seemingly done admiring his gloves.

“Oh,” John said dumbly. “I always assumed you weren’t that much younger than me.”

“I’m not that much younger than you.”

“Yes you are! Nearly a year! You’re a baby!” John laughed, reaching up and ruffling Sherlock’s hair. At his protests, he teased, “Sorry, what was that, baby face?”

“You must be going deaf, old man,” Sherlock countered.

“Touché,” John laughed, as they rounded a corner onto a side street and walked straight into the pack of boys who had been sitting in the café. John’s laughter cut out. “Shit.”

The boys turned around.

“Look who it is,” sneered Anderson. “Hello, lover boys.”

“Hi, Anderson,” John replied brightly. “You know, Sherlock, I think we took a wrong turn.”

“Yes, I think perhaps we did,” Sherlock agreed, but as they both went to turn, the tallest boy, who John knew to be Angelo, a prop in his rugby team from the year above – thick neck, broad shoulders, arms like tree trunks – called out,

“Not so fast.”

John sighed and turned around. “What is it, Angelo?”

“’What is it, Angelo?’” Angelo imitated. “Why the rush, boys? You fags got some place to be?”

“Hey.” John bristled and took a step forward, at which Angelo stood up a little straighter. “You think it makes you more of a man using language like that? Trying to validate that pathetic pubic hair you’ve got growing on your upper lip?”

The tittering coming from the group behind Angelo silenced. They crowded closer, posturing like a pack of peacocks.

“John,” Sherlock cautioned quietly. John pretended not to hear. He had reached the end of his tether.

“I understand,” Angelo said. “It must be tough, seeing as homos can’t grow facial hair.”

John and Angelo had somehow edged towards each other so they were now inches apart. John was well aware Angelo hit six feet easily and John was… under that, but the anger that had been building for over a fortnight was broiling in his veins and all logic in his head had taken leave for the time being. John knew he couldn’t fight Angelo – he was bigger and stronger than him, and he and Sherlock were far outnumbered. But he could punch and run. He could kick and run. Knee and run. In the balls, attack his masculinity. That would be fitting.

“You going to fight me, little man? Huh?” Angelo taunted, grinning like a shark. “Are you and your boyfriend going to take me on?”

John was so ready to punch him, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, shoulders back, legs locked, he was so ready –

Sherlock appeared out of nowhere, placing a hand on Angelo’s shoulder. “It’s alright, Angelo,” he said, looking into the thug’s eyes. John silently pleaded that he wouldn’t do anything stupid, whatever the fuck he’s doing – “Once you come out, you’ll find acceptance, even within yourself.”

Oh no. Sherlock, what have you done –

“What the fuck?” Angelo recoiled from Sherlock, shrugging off his hand. “I’m not gay!”

Sherlock had the good sense to take a step back; the vein in Angelo’s neck looked as if it were about to burst.

“No, of course not,” Sherlock said. “So the way you look at your friends in their rugby uniforms, that’s all platonic? I understand now.”

The faces of the group behind Angelo ranged from confusion, to rage, to concern, to disbelief.

Sherlock pressed on. “And the way you always make sure to walk at the back of the group when you all troop down for training – purely brotherly. And your enjoyment of the scrums has nothing to do with being pressed on all sides by sweaty, writhing men. And the name Godfrey Staunton, that means nothing to you – ”

“I’m not gay! I’m not!” Angelo looked to his posse for confirmation, support, something – most gave it, but others looked uncertain. He turned back to Sherlock. “You little faggot,” he said, rounding on him, but John got in between them.

“Takes one to know one, Angelo,” he said. Angelo looked about to boil over, but he stood rooted to the spot as John looked him squarely in the eyes for a moment longer, before turning out, and grabbing Sherlock by the hand. “Come on, babe.”

As they walked away, both breathing heavily, Sherlock gave John’s hand a squeeze. John squeezed back.

That was close.

I know.

“Yeah, that’s right! Run away!” Angelo yelled after them. “I hope your daddy’s proud of you, faggot like you for a son!”

And that was it.

John stopped in his tracks. Didn’t know whether that was addressed to him or Sherlock. Didn’t matter. Dropped Sherlock’s hand. Expected him to tell him not to – which he would have ignored – but heard only silence. Turned around, marched back to Angelo. And punched him square in the nose.

There was a crack, a pause, then blood, and a deep and throbbing pain in his hand, which he made sure not to react to. The faces of Angelo’s cronies were ones of shock, and John looked at each and every one in the eyes before spinning on his heels and walking away.

Only once he and Sherlock had rounded the corner did John stop and lean against a wall. He inspected his hand, slowly stretching out his fingers and curling them again.

After a few moments of laboured breathing in silence, Sherlock said, “I’m glad you did that.”

“So am I,” John replied, “but by god it hurt.”

They met each other’s eyes, and after a moment, burst into exhausted, relieved, adrenaline-fuelled laughter. Sherlock leant against the wall next to John.

When he could speak again, John said, “Look at us both, huh? Daddy issues the size of continental Europe,” he shook his head. "That was pretty insane, back there."

“That it was,” Sherlock grinned. John grinned back. Unashamedly, unabashedly, unapologetically. There and then, after having not slept for days, after having split his hand on someone else’s nose, after having laughed himself winded with his madman of a best friend, John felt happier than he had in a long time. He felt alive again, after so long dead.

A great roar from the side street shattered their momentary peace, and they immediately took off.

“We should get inside somewhere,” John said, trying to walk fast enough to keep away from the angry mountain of a boy who was no doubt pursuing them but not so fast as to attract suspicion.

“Agreed,” said Sherlock. He glanced in a shop window. “They’re just coming out of the side street now.”

“Shit,” John breathed. “Cinema?” he suggested, nodding at the building not far ahead. “There’s that new Bond showing and we’ve still got – ”

“Just over two hours, I know,” Sherlock finished. “Yes, fine – but these are the only circumstances under which I will ever watch a James Bond movie with you.”

While his friend was paying for the tickets, John poked his head out of the door, but instantly retracted it when he saw Angelo storming down the street, blood on his face – something which gave John a little rush of pride.

Sherlock got the tickets and came over to John. “We’re not allowed in for another five minutes.”

“Right,” John said, barely hearing. “Angelo does not look happy, by the way.”

“Does he know we’re in here?”

“I don’t think so,” John said, allowing himself to calm down a little. “Uh, do you want popcorn or something?”

“John, do you honestly think – ”

“No, me either,” John interrupted. “I should go and run this under some cold water,” he said, holding up his hand.

***

Sherlock sat on the ledge of the row of sinks while John rubbed at his knuckles, which were beginning to bruise.

“So, about Angelo,” John said.

“Mm?”

“Were you making that up?”

Sherlock smirked. “No. That was why it worked so well.”

Worked so well? It enraged him!”

“Same thing,”

“Angelo De Luca and God Staunton. The prop and the captain. Christ, who would have thought it,” John snorted, then thought a moment. “I feel a bit bad for him.”

Sherlock gave him an uncomprehending look.

“I do! Can’t be easy, being so closeted.”

“A healthy dose of internalised homophobia too, I don’t doubt.”

“Mm,” John agreed. “If only they would talk to each other instead of trying to out-man each other all the time. Then maybe they wouldn’t be so fucked up in the head.”

“Unfortunately,” Sherlock said, “boys are the most stupid of all animals,”

John turned the tap off and wiped his hands on his jeans. “So. Bond?”

“And you are no better.”

“Want me to punch you as well?”

***

On the screen in front of him, a building had just exploded. Bond had got away, of course, with nothing but a few scratches. Sherlock felt like he had been in that seat for at least a decade, but it was probably just coming to the climax of the film. God.

He looked over at John. He was fixated on the movie, but his blinks were becoming slower and heavier. He stifled a yawn. Sherlock knew he hadn’t slept properly in days. Sherlock knew it was his fault. But he couldn’t go through this case alone. Sarah’s wretched film night had proven that. He was a mess by himself – he was a mess with John, but with him, at least he felt safe. From himself.

Poor John.

I’m sorry, John. I’m a nightmare and I don’t know why you’re still here.

But he could never say it.

God, he hated himself. It was almost unbearable.

He had no idea where this wave of self-loathing had come from - the part of him that stood, looking on, in the doorway of his mind palace, was shaking its head. Withdrawal, Sherlock, it was saying. Withdrawal makes you more permeable.

John noticed him watching him. He caught Sherlock’s eye and flashed him a smile, which Sherlock tried to return.

John. The epitome of goodness, of kindness, of everything –

of everything I’m not.

He was so undeserving.

He? Specify your subject, Sherlock.

Sherlock was so undeserving of his grace.

John was so undeserving of his thoughtlessness, of his selfishness, of his –

And yet he had called him friend.

Sherlock got up.

“Where are you going? It's getting good,” John whispered.

“Loo,” Sherlock replied. “This is insufferable.”

With the eyes of a cinema full of people on his back, Sherlock walked out of the room. With the eyes of the starlets in the movie posters on his back, Sherlock walked out of the corridor. With his own eyes upon his face, Sherlock stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom.

He was so pathetic. An hour without a distraction and your mind falls in on itself again. You can’t solve this damn case and you never will and Victor was right, it won’t last, John will leave you to yourself and it will go back to being like it was before and maybe you want it to be that way because you’re a hopeless addict who can’t control himself for two minutes and you won’t be able to stop it and you can’t stop it and I can’t stop it I can’t stop it I can’t –

He doubled over and put his head in his hands.

Between his own heavy breaths, he could hear something else. Coming from the farthest end of the room. Like paper rustling – no, plastic bags. And an occasional whisper.

He walked very quietly down the length of the bathroom, steps virtually silent. The room was completely empty, save for him and the other mystery occupants. He held his breath as he got to the last few cubicles. Now he was closer he could tell it was two people – young, male, whispering things like “Hurry up,” and swearing under their breath. He doubted they knew they were not alone.

He stood in front of the door of the last cubicle and listened.

“Come on, Dean,” one voice whispered. “We have to go, hurry up.”

“Fuck off, I know,” the other whispered back.

“The others are going to be so pissed off...”

“Well, we don’t have much choice do we? It’s not as if – wait.”

“What? Keep going – ”

“No, shut up, Fitz – ” there was a rustling that indicated that Dean leant closer to Fitz. He lowered his voice and whispered, barely audible, “I think someone’s out there.”

After a few seconds, Sherlock heard the bar of the lock being dragged slowly back. The door swung open.

Inside the cubicle were two boys, a little younger than himself, holding small plastic bags of white powder. Some of that powder had been spilt all over the toilet seat – Sherlock’s first thought had been that they were users, but then the realisation hit him – they were trying to get rid of it. They were trying to flush it.

The boys’ faces widened in shock.

“It’s your problem now, mate.” One of them – Dean, by his voice – shoved the few remaining bags at Sherlock, taking the one in Fitz’s hand and throwing that at him as well, before dragging his accomplice out of the cubicle, both of them pushing past Sherlock and running out of the bathroom, leaving the door to bang shut behind them.

Sherlock looked at the mess the boys had left behind. He would have to go to the police. If he had just met two adults, then he would have ditched the drugs – I would have, I would have – and left it at that. It would have been their business. But he hadn’t just met two adults. They were fourteen year old boys, fifteen at most. They didn’t deserve to be in that kind of life. That was no life for a child. No life at all. It was a death. And it was no death for a child.

He knew from experience.

But all thoughts of the police dissolved when he looked down at the small packages in his hands.

He stumbled back to the sinks and threw the bags down.

There was a buzzing coming from one of the lights above him. It was flickering slightly. The buzzing was deafening. The lights were dazzling, he could feel their heat, prickling on his skin. He could feel a sweat break out against his collar. His tongue felt huge in his sandpaper-dry mouth, like a dead slug, useless. In his clenched fists were woodlice, making his palms itch and tingle.

The lights flicked off. How long had he been staring at the powder?

He brought his hands up to rub at his face, the action making the lights flick on again. He couldn’t move. It was taking all his energy to stop himself reaching for the bags, leaving no energy to even contemplate taking a step backwards, let alone leaving the room.

He let his arms swing heavily back to his sides, the movement catching his eye in the mirror. He met his own gaze and felt his heart sink.

He looked ragged. Undone. He was coming apart at the seams, his eyes red, sweat shining on his skin. His mouth was open, his breathing harsh and quick through it, his hair was wild.

Look at you. If John could see you now…

He’d leave. Of course he would. Why would anyone want to be around someone who –

you.

Let’s face it.

Why would anyone want to be around you?

The only person to call you friend will leave.

You are not worthy. And John is going to realise sooner or later. Why not make it sooner?

Put him out of his misery.

He had tried so hard. So fucking –

A sob broke from his mouth.

A hopeless case, as always.

If he did this, he knew he wouldn’t be able to go back again. He would be back on the roof again but this time no one would be coming to drag him off.

He reached forward.

It was one last thought of John that pushed, unbidden, into his mind that stayed his hand for a moment. John, laughing with him against the wall, with a bloody hand, with him, not two hours ago, with him, with him, with –

He clutched the bag.

***

As the final scene cut to black and the credits began to roll, Sherlock had still not returned. John filed out with the rest of the movie-goers and upon wandering into the foyer, was more than a little surprised to see it crawling with policemen.

Sherlock was standing near the door of the toilet with police tape draped around it, speaking to an officer. John caught his eye. Sherlock discretely held up a finger – wait. Disgruntled, John hovered behind him until the officer walked away, at which point he stepped up to his friend.

“What have you done now, Sherlock?”

“I didn’t do anything,”

“Well, then, would you care to tell me why a cinema toilet has been sealed off by the police?” John demanded.

“On the coach, John. We have a rendezvous in two minutes, do we not?”

John huffed and began to drag Sherlock towards the door.

***

John and Sherlock did not exchange another word until the coach began moving and the chatter of the other kids had reached a sufficient level for them not to be overheard.

“Well?”

Sherlock proceeded to explain how he had discovered two boys trying to flush some heroin down the toilet, been lumped with said heroin, had gone to the police station, and how keen the police had been to confiscate the heroin and start taking fingerprints from the cubicle walls.

“God, I can’t take you anywhere, can I?” John exclaimed. “And why does all the fun happen without me?” Sherlock rolled his eyes. “So did you find out who the boys were?”

Sherlock nodded after a moment. “Local lads. Dean Webb and Thomas Fitzjames. Cousins, apparently. Fourteen years old. The police have been closing in on this drug ring for a while now. They suspected that the main guy wasn’t dealing himself, he was using family members, but they never suspected he was blackmailing his nephews into it.”

“Jesus,” John breathed. “Those poor boys.”

Sherlock didn’t reply to that, and John looked at him. He was staring out the window, head turned away. He looked a bit pale. He seemed subdued, and had explained everything very quickly and flatly.

“Hey, you okay?”

“Mm?”

“Well, I mean,” John faltered. How to word this. “The, uh, nature of the – it was probably… you and drugs don’t have a very good history, and recently, what with – I was just wondering if you were – ”

“I’m fine,” Sherlock said, still facing the window.

John opened his mouth to reply, then thought better of it.

***

With shaking hands, Sherlock had put down the bag of heroin. Technically, it had been lighter than when he had picked it up, but it had felt so, so much heavier.

The buzzing of the light was now in the centre of his head, and it was not unpleasant at all. It felt like a massage, and it forced out all unwanted thoughts of John and guilt and John and his father and the boys and the police and John.

It was like breathing out after holding your breath until your head swam, it was like the rush of oxygen as you inhaled again, it was like sitting on a roof as the stars came out. He opened his eyes and felt as if he had had them closed for weeks.

***

Once they had returned to school, John didn’t see much of Sherlock for the rest of the day. Mike had insisted they go to the regular Sunday two-hour rugby training session when John had been rather more in favour of bunking off.

When John had told Sherlock this, the taller boy had nodded solemnly. When John had awkwardly asked what Sherlock was going to do to fill his time – an utterly transparent cover for saying I know this is a dangerous time for you, I’m not convinced you’re fine, I’m worried and I want to know the likelihood of you getting into trouble while I’m gone – he had said he might go for a walk. John had shifted uncomfortably, wanting to ask for more detail but not knowing how, until he gave up and went to find his boots.

John couldn’t concentrate through the rugby session. He spent the whole time fretting about Sherlock, and Mike had picked up on it.

“What’s up, mate?” he asked discretely, during a brief break.

“What? Sorry,” John said, dragging himself out of his thoughts.

“You’ve dropped the ball three times in the last half an hour. What’s Sherlock done this time?”

After a moment of hesitation, John’s reply came rushing out in almost one breath. “That’s the thing – he just won’t talk to me. About anything. About whatever’s going on in that head of his. All he says is ‘I’m fine’ and that’s the end of that.”

“Well, I admire your perseverance thus far,” Mike said, trailing off when he noticed Angelo glaring at John from the other side of the pitch. “Whoa,” he said, recoiling a little at the force of his stare. “What’s Angelo’s beef?”

“Oh,” John said, smiling a little. “I punched him earlier.”

“No,” Mike gasped.

“Yes,” John replied, grinning now. “Right on the nose.”

“Good for you!” Mike slapped John on the shoulder. “Why?”

John sighed. “He was just being his usual, arsehole, homophobic self.”

Mike sobered a little. “’Bout you and Sherlock? Dick head.”

John regarded Mike for a moment. “You know the funny thing,” he said, “we’re not actually together.”

The look of confusion that overcame Mike’s face made John bark out a short laugh. Then he seemed to find clarity. Which wiped John’s smile from his face.

“Oh,” Mike said conspiratorially. “I get it,” he nodded seriously. “You’re not together.”

Oh, god.

“No, Mike, we’re actually not,” John emphasised. “If we were, don’t you think I would have told you?”

“Well, not necessarily, I mean – ”

“You would be the first person I would tell, trust me,” John continued. “Besides, I’m not gay.”

“Oh, no, I knew that,” Mike said, somewhat to John’s relief. “I just assumed you were bi.”

Before John could reply, the whistle blew for everyone to get back on their feet. Mike jogged away and John didn’t have the time nor energy to speak to him again.

***

John returned to an empty room twenty-one. Traces of Sherlock were scattered everywhere – the skull grinning down from a bedpost, paper scattered on the floor, some boiling tubes full of something black and treacle-like that Sherlock had discarded on John’s desk. But it was too quiet, the lack of another heartbeat making the silence deafening.

He had a shower and got changed into his pyjamas – he knew he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to eat anything at dinner so he reasoned that there wouldn’t be any point in going.

After half-heartedly doodling for a restless half hour, John threw down his pencil in frustration and decided to hunt for his friend.

He first tried the rooms of the lower sixth – “Have you seen Sherlock?” – which turned up nothing. The door to the attic was padlocked shut. The common room was full of noise and people. A call to Sherlock’s mobile went straight to the answer machine – "This is Sherlock Holmes, I’m either ignoring you or doing something much more interesting. You could leave a message but I probably won’t call you back" – to which John left an elongated and exasperated sigh and “pick up your bloody phone”, before finding a thick hoodie and a pair of shoes.

There was a poster blu-tacked onto the door of the house – there were several, but the one that caught John’s eye was headed by the words ‘ART COMPETITION’ and nearly distracted him enough to stop him in his tracks. Nearly.

A brisk wind was blowing, sending John’s heart to the pit of his stomach, brain whipping up countless images of Sherlock lying in a ditch no matter how hard John tried to think on other things as he picked a direction and began walking in it.

He tried to list the places Sherlock may have run off to, but that turned up frighteningly few results. John sometimes forgot that he had only known Sherlock a couple of months, but that night was not one of those times.  He found himself wondering whether he should go back and ask Mike, or Lestrade, but that was not what made his footsteps falter.

The wind changed direction and brought a few fleeting notes on a violin through the falling darkness, and then it was gone. John stood as still as he could, willing it to come again, and what felt like an eternity later, it did, and he felt a smile tugging at his mouth – it was the opening bars of Come On Eileen.

John followed the snatches of music – more instruments joining in – to the music block, and then up the stairs to the door of a room on the top floor. However, as he got there, the music abruptly stopped and was replaced by muffled voices – unfriendly ones. There was a short burst of shouting and John slowed as he neared the door. He put his ear to the wood, but even so struggled to work out what exactly was going on – cursed soundproofing. There was nothing for it but to open the door.

He had intended just to poke his head in, but the sight of the Hulk standing inches from a defiant Sherlock had John at his roommate’s side in seconds.

“Hey,” John said. “What’s the problem here?”

The musicians in Doyle’s band looked at him with a mixture of surprise, hostility and confusion, and John was suddenly aware of how ridiculous he must have looked, standing there in his pyjamas, but he held eye contact with the Hulk.

“He keeps playing in the wrong key on purpose,” the boy seated at the piano muttered after a moment of strained silence. At this there came assorted agreements from the rest of the assembled, except the Hulk, who remained silent.

“And he’s picking fights with everyone,” said Eric.

“And he keeps switching into Beethoven’s sixth half way through,” said the boy at the drum kit, waving his sticks accusingly.

John rubbed at his forehead and tried to look at Sherlock, but he avoided his gaze.

“Listen, we’ve both had a tough few days, so – I don’t even know how you got him to come up here, but – ”

“Stop making excuses,” the Hulk growled.

John had to stop himself giving into the vague anger pushing a response onto the tip of his tongue. Instead, he said, “Look, I know Sherlock can be a little shit at times, but I think tonight it would be best for us to leave you in peace.”

The Hulk looked from Sherlock’s face to John’s, and after a moment, threw up his hands in defeat and stepped aside.

“Goodnight, John, Sherlock,” Eddie, thus far silent, called after them as John dragged Sherlock by the arm into the corridor. Once there, Sherlock tapped his violin against his thigh, chewed his lip, and just as John closed the door behind them and opened his mouth, walked off towards the stairs.

They remained in silence until they stepped out into the night air.

“I’ve disappointed you,” Sherlock said.

“Yeah, that’s – that’s a good deduction,” John muttered sarcastically.

“Why?”

“Can’t you deduce that?” John said, somewhat regretting the sting his words carried.

Sherlock didn’t reply to that, and even in the dark, John could see how haggard he looked. He sighed.

“You always make things so difficult for yourself,” he mumbled. “It’s so frustrating.”

“I do apologise, John,” Sherlock said, voice dripping with sarcasm and not without enmity, “for all the inconvenience I cause you.”

“No, that’s not what I – ” John began, but Sherlock sped up. John gave up trying to keep pace with him, shaking his head at the figure stalking off into the night.

***

John had tried to find Sherlock to apologise, but it was as if the boy had been wiped from the face of the earth. There was no guarantee he was even in Doyle, and John checked his watch as the seconds ticked down to ten and the subsequent locking of the doors. Ten came and went and still no Sherlock.

Ten thirty.

He tried phoning him, but it went to the answer machine every time. He didn’t bother leaving messages.

He tried texting Molly, asking Mike, even tried to find someone with Irene Adler’s number – all to no avail.

All the while, tossing and turning on top of his duvet, a small thought grew in the back of his mind. A small thought that, by one in the morning, wasn’t so small anymore and eclipsed all else.

It’s my fault.

If only he hadn’t let exhaustion get the better of him, if only he had tried harder to get him to talk, if only, if only, if only.

He kept thinking back to that afternoon – was it really just a few hours ago? – when John had called him his friend and saw him take the first bite of his sandwich and held his hand and punched Angelo and leaned with him against the wall and I swear, I swear I’ve never seen him smile like that, never so happy but –

Again and again –

It’s my fault.

***

Sherlock knew he was being childish, storming off like he had, knew that John had just worded his thoughts badly. But he also couldn’t look him in the eye.

Somehow, his tangled, stupid, infuriating brain had begun to equate the incident in the bathroom earlier that day with a betrayal of John’s trust, of his kindness, of… of him. Of John.

He knew John suspected he had done what he had. He knew John wanted to confront him about it. He knew that that conversation would not end well – not through lack of goodwill. They were both exhausted, completely and utterly, frayed to breaking point, and Sherlock knew that he was stubborn at the best of times. He had hypothesised at least thirty four ways it could end, and none of them were desirable. It was the rugby practise and Stamford’s obsession with physical fitness that had saved him from the threat of a confrontation for a short couple of hours, but it was only for a short couple of hours.

Which was why, when van Coon had found him and asked whether he was coming to the house singing practise, Sherlock had leapt at the invitation.

However, once the door had closed on the tiny sound proof room, Sherlock had immediately regretted that decision. After having spent so much time with John that day, he had temporarily forgotten just how grating other people were. He had successfully kept his attitude neutral for the first hour or so, but when the bassist and the boy built like a mountain had started arguing about some minor tempo issue, he had begun to feel his self-control cracking.

The open windows of the practise room did little to cool the occupants’ tempers, which rose by the minute, Sherlock’s included. He knew his comedown had something to do with it, but the others had no excuse, and when Barnaby The Mountain had started threatening him, Sherlock rather detachedly found himself intrigued at the reaction of different personality types to provocation.

John, as reliable as ever, had burst in, extricated them both from the situation, and then everything had started to go downhill. Which was an understatement.

Unbeknownst to John, Sherlock was sitting not ten metres away from him. He was cradled in the crook of the oak tree that stood outside their window, watching his phone light up in his hands with each call that he could see John initiate. He could also see John’s reactions to Sherlock not picking up go from anxious, to worried, to concerned, to unsurprised, to annoyed, to resigned.

He didn’t know why he was making himself watch his friend’s distress – he certainly wasn’t enjoying it – but it only confirmed and exacerbated the guilt that had been growing stronger and stronger as the day wore on.

By the time John fell asleep, face illuminated for a few minutes by the light of his phone left resting on his chest – in the hope that you’ll call, you selfish, unthinking, waste of space – Sherlock had lost the feeling in his toes, fingers and most of his limbs. It also seemed he had lost all feeling in his head as well. Everything seemed very logical from here on out.

He could feel an impending storm hovering at the edge of his thoughts, and knew that if it broke shore, it would wreak havoc. His mind palace wasn’t built to withstand such things. The walls were thin, the mortar weak.

So it was only logical he slipped through the window. Took off his coat and shoes. Walked to the bathroom.

Only logical to find the needle and sew himself back together.

***

John broke the surface of his dream, gasping for air. He was sitting bolt upright, shaking. The nightmare was still there, behind his eyes – this time he’d been trying to turn the wheel so hard that it broke, shattering and collapsing into ashes in his hands. He had looked to the passenger seat and a pair of wide, glassy, quicksilver eyes beneath a mop of curly hair had stared back before –

No. No. Not going to dwell.

Ignore the sob on the exhale. That doesn’t mean anything. Ignore the way the breath catches on the inhale. That doesn’t mean anything either.

He passed a hand through his hair and it came away damp. The light sheen of sweat on his skin was turning cold, a shiver running down his spine. This, he noted carefully, was the worst nightmare he’d had in a while.

After a few deep breaths, he began to take in his surroundings. His duvet was scrunched up in a ball at the end of his mattress, his pillow askew. He looked to Sherlock’s bed – empty. The curtains were open, and the grey light of early morning filtered into the room. The room that felt too large, all of a sudden.

John checked his phone – just gone five.

Five? Oh shit –

He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, god knows what could have happened to Sherlock –

He forced himself to halt that train of thought.

Five. A couple of hours, then, until he would have to slip back into the clockwork of the school’s routine, but, until then, the world was still unconscious, and he could walk where he pleased. On any other day, he would have gone for a walk in the woods, but that day, he had to find his friend. His probably drugged-up, self-destructive, obsessive, frustrating, childish, but somehow best friend.

He stumbled down from his bed and padded to the door. The corridor was silent. John shuffled down it as quietly as he could, careful not to disturb the peace of his friends as they slept just a few feet away on either side of him. He wondered what they were dreaming of, if they were dreaming at all. Wondered if anyone had nightmares as he did. Wondered if any of them would be able to deduce the origins of his, or would remind him of their transience each time he woke up sobbing into his pillow. Or would they pretend they hadn’t heard? How many would think less of him if they knew?

He opened the door to the bathroom and the strip lights on the ceiling flickered on, making his eyes hurt. He rubbed at them. He splashed frigid water on his face, making him gasp a little, clearing away some of the fog in his head. He groped about on the shelf above him for his towel, and rubbed his skin dry. He stood with his face pressed into the fabric for a moment. Bulk-bought laundry detergent, his own shampoo and shower gel, and something reminiscent of home clung to the cloth. He replaced the towel and scrutinised his bloodshot eyes in the mirror. He was going to have to steal Mike’s eye drops again, blinking would begin to hurt again sooner or –

There was a shape in the mirror. A shape slumped against the wall behind him. A shape with raven’s-feather hair.

Sherlock, oh god, no –

John fell to his knees by the figure, more lying than sitting.

“Sherlock?” his voice wavered. “Sherlock? Sherlock, please – ”

He touched two fingers to the boy’s neck, held his breath. Yes, there – a pulse, a pulse – he pulled open his eyelids – no discolouration, just rolled back. Track marks on his arm – find the needle? No, that could come later – move him? Think back to first aid courses – mind blank – fuck. Maybe? Depends on the nature of – fuck – of – of – no, don’t move him. Not supposed to. Should call someone – who? Not the san, he’d be expelled, they’d have to tell. Who would have had experience with this, with Sherlock?

Standing was a little difficult; his leg was unsteady and beginning to ache. He didn’t want to leave Sherlock alone, but he had to. Had to.

He ran back to room twenty-one, praying that his heavy footfall didn’t wake anyone. Sherlock’s phone was in his coat pocket – there was a brief moment of panic – does he have a passcode? No – it unlocked without obstacle. John clenched the object in his fist and returned to the bathroom.

He collapsed to the floor, and on some instinct, dragged Sherlock up and across so the boy was leaning on him, his back against his chest, his head lolled back against his shoulder. He scrolled through his friend’s contacts and selected the one labelled ‘Mycroft’ with a shaking finger.

The phone rang. And rang. And rang -

“Please pick up, please,” John murmured.

– and rang. And rang – “Sherlock?”

“John, actually – Mycroft, I – ”

“Ah, John Watson. To what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Sorry it’s so early, I just – ” why are you apologising, John, get to the point – “I just found Sherlock in the bathroom, he’s unconscious, I don’t – ” breathe – “I don’t – ”

“Is it drugs?”

“I think so – ”

“Yes or no, John.”

John took a breath. It felt like he was breathing through a straw.

“Yes, there’s – he’s been injecting but I can’t find the needle right now.”

“It’s probably cocaine,” Mycroft sighed. “Listen to me, John. You need to find his… stash, and you need to dispose of it. Indefinitely. But you can’t tell anyone, understand?”

“Yes, sir,”

“You’re the first and only friend he’s had, and if the two are you are separated because of his behaviour, well… my brother isn’t the most stable of people. John?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You cannot let that happen.”

John didn’t know how to respond. First and only. Jesus.

“John?”

“Yes, sir? Sorry,”

“What’s his pulse like?”

“Uh,” John took all his fingers but two off Sherlock’s neck. “Regular, more or less. Elevated.”

“More or less?” Mycroft drew a breath. “Well, it sounds as if he’ll be fine. He’ll wake up in a few hours. This is the first proper night’s sleep he’s had in a while, yes?”

“Yes, we’ve been – ”

“John. Quite frankly, I don’t care. Now, if you don’t mind, I want to try and get back to sleep before I have to face the day.”

“No, Mycroft –  ” the panic that had subsided with the voice in his ear began to swell again.

The man sighed again. “You are more than competent to deal with this. You’ve dealt with worse, from what I hear. He just needs to sleep, and needs to be kept watch over, and needs to be...” An edge of malice sharpened the man’s voice, but it was quickly reigned in.  “Destroy those needles, John. And the person who is supplying him. This has gone quite far enough. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes, of course, but – ”

“Good morning, John.”

“Mycroft – ” another click, and the line went dead.

John dropped his hand from his ear, set the phone on the floor. He closed his eyes. Tried to breathe.

Look at me, John.

John, look at me.

Panicking would help nobody.

Sit back, you can’t breathe curled up.

He focused on the weight of the body resting on his own. The pulse under his fingers.

You must’ve done this a thousand times before, John, come on, breathe.

The thin bones beneath his hands.

Inhale: intercostal muscles move thoracic cavity up and out. Diaphragm contracts. Pressure decreases.

The smell of another’s skin.

Exhale: intercostal muscles move thoracic cavity down and in. Diaphragm relaxes. Pressure increases.

Time to get up.

He guided Sherlock to the floor gently, before sticking the phone in the waistband of his pyjama trousers. He bent down, positioned his arms beneath Sherlock’s knees and his shoulders, and stood up.

Opening doors was a little tricky, but carrying Sherlock back to their room was easier than John had expected. It was helped by Sherlock’s refusal to eat like a normal human, of course, and all the rigorous rugby training and gym sessions Mike had dragged John to. With each step, John forced himself to calm, calm, calm – he had someone to look after.

He somehow managed to get Sherlock into his own bed. John arranged his thin limbs into the recovery position, just in case, and draped the duvet over him.

Asleep, Sherlock looked young. The features that were usually set in an indifferent mask were lax, open, peaceful. All the things one would never associate with him. The great mind that solved unsolvable problems and saw invisible things and drove John up the wall – resting. Dreaming. John wondered what Sherlock dreamed of. An unhappy childhood? His mother? Cases?

First and only.

Him?

John clambered down from the bed and began his search for Sherlock’s stash.

As the sun poked its head above the horizon and tinted the sky lilac, John had found what he hoped was all of his roommate’s supplies. Some had been in his wash bag in the bathroom, some had been in their room. A few needles, a few powders, mainly liquids. Now they all sat on the floor in a semi-circle, with John in the middle, wondering what to do with them.

His eye was caught by a small, empty box in his bin. He reached out, took it, and dumped everything inside it. He then found some sellotape and sealed the box tight, using up nearly all the roll in the process. Box inside plastic bag inside plastic bag inside plastic bag, taped at the opening.

It was nearly seven, so John ran downstairs and out to Lestrade’s dustbins as quickly as he could. He buried the package deep inside the non-recyclables container and had just entered room twenty-one when the bell rang to signal the start of another week.

What now?

He wasn’t going to wake up Sherlock, that was a given. And he himself wasn’t going to go to lessons – no way in hell.

He thought for a few moments, as the house came to life around him, about whether or not it would be necessary to tell Lestrade about the both of them bunking off, and came to the conclusion that angry emails from teachers about truant students would not make the house master particularly amenable to John’s watery excuses, so it would be wisest to pre-empt. He made his way downstairs.

John knocked on Lestrade’s door and waited for a response. When none came, he knocked again, and then put his head around the door frame and shouted, “Sir?”

“In the kitchen,” came the barely-audible reply, and John took that as an invitation to enter.

He walked down the passage, following the sounds of cooking. Lestrade was making an omelette, in his pyjamas still.  Which was a bit of an odd sight.

“What’s up, Doc?”

“Morning, sir,” John said. “Uh, Sherlock’s a bit ill, and he’s out cold, so I was wondering if it’d be okay if he missed lessons today.”

“Out cold?” Lestrade mused, going to his fridge and bringing out a packet of what appeared to be ham. “That boy is rarely asleep at all, I don’t know how you put up with it.”

“With great difficulty, sir,” John replied.

Lestrade threw a few bits of ham into the frying pan. “I can imagine. Yeah, that should be fine, I’ll email his teachers.”

“Thanks,” John said, searching for a way to phrase his next request. “And, uh, could I, maybe, not, uh…”

“You want the day off too?” the man put the ham back in the fridge and poked at his omelette-to-be with a spatula. “Don’t we all.”

John didn’t know what to say.

Please, his brother said I’m his only friend?

Please, he hasn’t slept in days and I want to make sure he wakes up?

Please, if I can’t see him I might start panicking again because nobody else will make sure he doesn’t relapse?

“Just the morning? I have two free periods before lunch anyway.”

Lestrade looked at him over his shoulder. His gaze was steady and scrutinising. John stood as still as he could, fighting the urge to fidget. He was about to beg and offer to do the man’s washing up for a week, when Lestrade turned back to his breakfast and said, “Fine. But only because I want to eat my breakfast in peace and I think you’ll argue if I say no.”

“Thank you sir,” John replied, trying not to gush.

Lestrade grunted a reply and John took that as his cue to leave.

***

Before Sherlock had opened his eyes, he was aware he was not alone in his bed.

The mattress dipped at his feet, and the duvet felt tight around his legs. Sherlock was lying on his side, curled up. When he blinked open his eyes, he was presented with the sight of the metal bars of his bed just in front of his nose, and John’s bed – empty – on the other side of the room. So it was most likely John who was occupying the space left by the angle of Sherlock’s legs.

Who else would it be.

Then the headache hit, pounding at his skull. He quickly backtracked through the events of the previous day – the heroin in the cinema bathroom, coming back to school and drowning himself in his own thoughts, reaching for the syringe in the fluorescent light of the Doyle bathroom –

He must have fallen unconscious. Oh, shit. He must have fallen unconscious and John must have found him.

Sherlock carefully shifted so he could see the end of his bed, and, true enough, there was John. He was lying on his back in the space to the right of Sherlock’s legs, with his own draped over the bars at the end of the bed. At the sight of him, Sherlock couldn’t help but smile a little – despite everything, John was still there.

Sherlock slowly extricated his legs from by John’s head, sitting up. It was probably best to let John sleep, seeing as he hadn’t done so properly in a long –

“Sherlock?” John mumbled quietly, rubbing a hand over his eyes. He turned his head to his left and upon seeing an absence of the lump made by Sherlock’s legs, repeated Sherlock’s name, sounding more awake, voice laced with concern.

He drew his legs back into the bed and twisted himself so he was kneeling up –

“Oh, Sherlock, thank god,” he breathed, relief flooding his face, crawling towards him and –

Sherlock was suddenly enveloped in John’s arms. It was a little bit of an awkward angle, seeing as Sherlock was sitting cross-legged and John was kneeling next to him, but John had his arms tight around Sherlock’s neck and he was warm and Sherlock could feel him breathing, laughing, feel his chest move against his own, and it was the first time Sherlock had been embraced like this by someone other than his mother.

“Good morning, John,” he said, voice a little hoarse.

“Good morning, Sherlock,” he returned, all kinds of mirth and disbelief in his voice.

After a moment, Sherlock dimly wondered whether he should do something with his arms, which were still behind him, propping him up, but before he could work out what exactly, John pulled away.

He sat back, and smiled at Sherlock for a moment, before seemingly catching himself, swallowing, and slipping into doctor mode. “How are you feeling?”

“Never better,” Sherlock said. When John gave him a stern look, he gave in. “Head hurts a little.”

This seemed to satisfy John, and he nodded. “Hungry? Thirsty?”

Sherlock didn’t respond to that, but John obviously took that to mean a yes to both, and began to cajole him out of bed.

***

“Feels a bit weird,” John said, poking around in the communal breadbin in the kitchen of the common room. “Wandering about the house in my pyjamas at half eleven on a Monday morning.”

Sherlock hummed something noncommittal into his glass of water. Conversation since his waking had been a little… not forced, but as if they were both avoiding talking about something and they both knew they were doing it. And it wasn’t exactly rocket science to work out what that something was.

John, having found two adequate slices of bread, put them in the toaster and turned it on.

He took a breath.

“How is Sarah?” Sherlock blurted out. Mentally, he cringed, but it was the only thing he could think of at short notice to stop John confronting him. John looked at him like he’d just asked him to tap dance.

“She’s – she’s fine, I think,” he replied, eyebrows furrowed. “I haven’t spoken to her recently.”

“Oh,” Sherlock said. “So – you and her – ?” Sherlock mentally kicked himself, but pressed on. “Broken up?”

“We were never together in the first place. Sherlock – ”

“That’s a shame,” Sherlock interrupted.

“Sherlock, I want to – ”

“She was a nice girl.”

“Sherlock!” John exclaimed, turning to face him. Sherlock avoided his eyes. “We have to talk.”

“We don’t have to – ”

“Yes, we do.” John said, firmly but gently. Sherlock felt a wave of shame come over him. Here was this boy, so kind, so worried about him, and you’re just brushing him off like the ungrateful –

“Please don’t do that to me again.”

Sherlock looked up. John wasn’t looking at him.

“Please. I know nothing happened and you didn’t mean to, but please.”

Sherlock swallowed. John took a deep breath and seemed to resettle himself. He met his eyes.

“This can’t go on, Sherlock,” he said. “That big brain of yours, so brilliant, and you’re wasting it.”

Wasting it?

“Why do you do it, Sherlock?” John asked, and there was genuine curiosity on his features.

Sherlock looked at his hands. “I get so bored, John,” he said quietly. “My mind tears itself to pieces if I don’t.”

John nodded, as if confirming something. Then he stood a little straighter, and Sherlock found himself working out the likely amount of time before John got promoted in the CCF.

“Next time you think you might be, uh, tempted,” he said, a little awkwardly, “come and find me.”

Sherlock met his gaze. There was a steely resolve there, and Sherlock felt his throat clench.

The toaster popped, making Sherlock jump a little. John broke the eye contact, turning to attend to breakfast. Sherlock sipped at his water. He was unsure of just how John was intending to help him undo years’ worth of a habit – addiction, Sherlock, be honest – but the determination in John’s eyes was not something he was going to be able to delete.

As John shifted to the fridge, Sherlock tracked his movement, and as the shorter boy crouched down to rummage for something, Sherlock’s eye was caught by a pile of letters on top of the fridge. One letter, specifically. It was three down in the pile, but the name written on the envelope was clearly visible due to the boy who collected the house’s post that morning being late for his first lesson and so being less than careful with the way he put down the missives. A name written in exactly the same handwriting as the three words emblazoned in yellow on the east-facing wall of Sherlock’s mind palace.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

Chapter Text

“John,” Sherlock said, reaching for the letter.

“Mm?” he said, standing up with a pack of butter in his hand.

“Look.” He held up the envelope, and after a few seconds of John looking at it blankly, explained, “It’s the same handwriting as the graffiti.”

“Really?” John said, leaning closer to inspect the missive. “Are you sure?”

“Ninety four percent,” Sherlock said, putting down his glass and grabbing a knife from the countertop. He carefully sliced open the envelope and tipped its contents into his hand.

A pair of earrings rested in his palm. “I’ve seen these before,” he muttered.

“They’re Sarah’s,” John said suddenly. “She was wearing them the last time we met up.”

Sherlock tried to think back to that night, but everything was a little hazy and it took him a couple of seconds to see through the fog and remind himself of the details. He’d made a comment about them, he recalled – indirectly, but still… “Yes, I remember,” he turned them over in his palm. “I told her she needn’t have dressed up, these earrings seemed so formal on her.”

Holding them now, he was surprised at how ornate they were – thin metal glowing gold in the mid-morning sun, a small but rare gem set into each one. He remembered the way they had swung as Sarah had looked between John and himself in disbelief.

John rolled his eyes. “Ah, yes,” He went back to buttering the toast. “How could I forget. So what do you think this means?”

Sherlock raced through options in his mind, but like grains of sand through his fingertips, he could grasp none. “I don’t… I don’t know.”

John stilled and turned to him. “What, really?”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes at him, but couldn’t muster up the willpower to reply.

“Well then,” John said. “I suppose the only thing for it is to visit Sarah. Jam?”

***

After Sherlock had declined John’s offer of jam and had, under his watchful eye, eaten his fair share of toast, the pair went upstairs and silently changed – Sherlock out of the clothes he’d worn the day before and slept in and John out of his pyjamas – and John let Sherlock remain shrouded in his own thoughts until they rounded a corner and Frank house came into view.

“Do you think this and the Turner thing are connected?”

“Almost definitely, if the next ten minutes play out the way I think they will,” his friend replied.

A girl appeared through the door of the house and descended the steps two at a time, hurrying down the road towards them. John watched as Sherlock’s eyes fixed on her, flickering over her person. He wondered what he saw when deducing like that, whether annotations appeared in his mind’s eye, sticky notes fluttering in the breeze. A barely-detectable look of not-displeased surprise appeared on his face, quickly disappearing, and again, not for the first or the last time, John longed to spend a day inside that great cavern of a skull.

A thought struck him and he stopped in his tracks, causing Sherlock to do the same, looking mildly annoyed. “How do we know Sarah will be in? It’s the middle of a lesson, I don’t know when her frees are – ”

Sherlock seemed distracted by the girl, still hastily walking in the opposite direction to them, but not so distracted that he couldn’t interrupt John. “I’m not sure she’ll have to be.”

“What?” John replied. “You aren’t thinking of breaking into her room and rooting through her stuff, are you? Because we’ve had a chat about this, remember? Privacy, Sherlock, is very – ”

“Oh, stop fretting; no, I’m not,” Sherlock snapped, halting John mid-lecture. Then his voice turned softer, and he pointedly glanced at the girl now nearing them as he said, “Wait.”

John wasn’t satisfied that his point about privacy had been properly received, but he held his tongue as the girl looked up from the ground, which had been the focus of her gaze since leaving Frank, and her mouth formed a small ‘O’. Now she was closer, John could see the evident worry on her face, and she hurried over to them.

“Are you Sherlock Holmes?” she asked, and when Sherlock replied in the affirmative, a little of the tension visibly slipped off her shoulders and she closed her eyes briefly in relief. She composed herself. “I need your help.”

***

Sherlock, John and the girl, whose name turned out to be Nadia, stood in the doorway of the Year Nines’ dormitory in Tolkien house.

“So you’re saying your brother Muhammad has been kidnapped?” John said gently to Nadia, recapping what she had told them on the walk over.

Nadia nodded, fiddling with a ring on her finger. “What do you think, Sherlock?”

Sherlock’s eyes had been darting all over the dorm since they had arrived and he had not said a word. After a pause, he abruptly crouched down and peered at a patch of the floor, and John saw him lightly trace a finger over what appeared to be a scuff mark from a black-soled shoe, before reaching into his pocket and rooting around for something. He seemed to be having trouble finding whatever it was that he was looking for, throwing assorted items onto the floor in increasing frustration: first a ball of blu-tack, then a small torch, then –

“Are those my earrings?” Nadia said disbelievingly, picking them up and inspecting them. At this, John saw Sherlock still, and he slowly turned around.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “Are they?”

Nadia looked from him to John for a moment, then answered, suspicion in her voice – and understandably so, John thought. “Yes, they are. I thought I’d lost them… why were they in your pocket?”

Sherlock scrutinised her for a moment, before humming and turning back to the scuff mark. He pulled out a small magnifying glass from his pocket – on the first go this time – and started investigating. John glanced at the earrings clasped in Nadia’s hand, then did a double take – the gems in the earrings matched the one in Nadia’s ring, and the band was made of the same delicate metal, glinting in the sunlight.

“Hey,” Nadia repeated. “Why were my earrings in your pocket?”

John shook his head – her question was falling on deaf ears. “It’s a long and very weird story,” he explained. “But we really did not steal them, I promise.”

She did not seem much placated by John’s meagre assurance, and held up the offending jewellery. “These were given to me by my grandmother,” she said. “If you’ve damaged them – ”

“No, listen, Nadia,” John implored. “We’ll tell you everything after we do something about your brother. I’m really sorry, but that’s all I can offer you by way of explanation right… now… Sherlock, what are you doing?”

John had been distracted by Sherlock appearing to dig at the wooden floor with a scalpel. “Mud,” he muttered. John and Nadia glanced at each other.

“Mud?” John inquired as politely as he could.

Sherlock retrieved a small clear plastic box from another pocket and carefully placed a chunk of the floorboard he had cut away inside it, before leaping to his feet, an almost frantic energy in his eyes.

“Yes, John, mud!” He pocketed the box. “See here; the scuff mark is from Muhammad’s school shoe – left, I think, but that doesn’t matter – and while that one is the most noticeable, there are others, here, here, and – ” he pointed to various tiny marks on the floor. “ – here. Signs of a struggle. I know your brother, I’ve seen him around,” he said to Nadia, who didn’t look entirely convinced. “He’s a slight boy, with light footsteps, the kind of person to never leave a scuff mark unless he was running with quite some momentum, or – ” Sherlock pushed the heel of his shoe away from him, leaving a black smudge behind. “He was digging his heels into the floor, resisting something. Someone had to drag him out of this room.”

Here, Sherlock stepped up to Nadia and held her by the arms, smiling, before letting go and going back to the marks on the floor. Nadia seemed a little alarmed, but at least she was listening now.

“Your brother put up a fight, bless him, he did a wonderful job,” Sherlock said as he walked over to Muhammad’s area, and peered at the books on the nightstand. “Ah! Clever boy – clever boy who reads all of these detective stories; he knows what the police, fictional or otherwise, would look for, the more clues the better.”

“But what about the mud?” John asked, surprised to find that he had to gather breath to speak.

Sherlock shot him a grin and stood up. “Mud! Thank you, John.” He moved back over to the marks on the floor. “If someone had to drag Muhammad, it would have taken some force. The aggressor would have needed some traction.” He knelt down and pointed to a chunk of mud smeared on the floor. “Mud from the bottom of the attacker’s shoe.” He stood, barely keeping the self-satisfaction off his face. “I can analyse it and find out whereabouts the aggressor has been recently, or I can have someone else do it while I attend to other areas of the investigation. You know, at first I was going to tell you to stop overreacting, decline the case, but that ring… ”

Nadia seemed to have accepted this barrage of information and the only sign of her residual worry was the quick rise and fall of her chest. She watched as Sherlock seemed to get caught up in some train of thought, brows furrowing, and as he opened his mouth to say something, she interjected –

“Are you going to ask how I knew my brother had been kidnapped?”

Sherlock closed his mouth and said made a gesture to say ‘go on’.

“Well, I didn’t really,” Nadia said. “I knew he was in trouble of some kind but I just wanted to grab your attention. Anyway, when we were little, Muhammad and I invented this signal to tell each other when we were uncomfortable or wanted out of a situation and if one of us saw it, we would intervene.” She was walking over to her brother’s bed as she explained. “We would draw circles on our hand with a finger, that was the signal. Circles mean trouble.” She beckoned Sherlock over, and John followed, and they all crouched as Nadia pointed at floor just by the leg of the bed.

“What am I looking at here?” John asked after a moment.

Sherlock pushed him backwards a little and John went to protest, but then the angle became just right for the sun streaming in through the windows to reveal a sloppy circle drawn in something greasy.

“Oh, God, Nadia,” John breathed. The gravity of the situation came down upon him, finally – he had been too caught up in watching Sherlock twirl around and deduce that which surely could not have been true (but was all the same) to appreciate the reality of a thirteen year old being snatched from a place of supposed safety. Nadia gave him a small, sad smile, and sat on her brother’s bed. She pulled a hoodie that had been abandoned on top of the duvet onto her lap and rubbed at it with a thumb.

“He had come to visit me last night and had left this behind. I had a free this period so I came over to return it, and he had left some things on the floor, so I bent down to tidy them away for him when I saw it. Saw the circle. My roommate, Sarah, had mentioned you, Sherlock, said you were the friend of this boy she had been seeing – who turned out to be you, I guess, John,” she looked up at them both. “Said you liked mysteries and were the cleverest person she’d ever met and also the most infuriating, so I thought you might have some ideas. I was just going to find you when I bumped into you outside Frank.”

While she had been talking, Sherlock had been rummaging through the drawer in Muhammad’s beside table, and now he straightened up. In his hand he held a large tub of something, and before John could ask what it was, Nadia explained.

“He has very dry skin. So much so that he has this prescription moisturiser in the winter.” Sherlock unscrewed the lid of the pot and dipped a finger in. It came out coated in a thick white substance, and he crouched down and, next to the circle, drew a stripe on the floor. “At home we don’t let him touch anything after he’s put it on because it’s so greasy. I assume he – ”

“No, never assume anything,” Sherlock interrupted, but there wasn’t much force behind it.

Nadia looked vaguely amused and resumed. “Fine. It seems most likely that he had just put some on when whoever… whoever took him came into the room.” Her voice wavered only slightly, before swallowing her emotions. John was impressed. If it was Harry who had gone missing, he would have been in pieces by now. There were a few moments of silence as Sherlock replaced the moisturiser and the others reflected on the situation. John replayed what Nadia had said earlier and something caught his attention.

“Sorry, Nadia, earlier, did you say you’re Sarah’s roommate? Sarah Sawyer?” John asked. Nadia nodded. “Did you lend her your earrings one night by any chance, when she was going to see me?”

“Yeah, I did, actually,” Nadia said, looking at them in her hands. “I guess they didn’t do the trick for you, hey?” she said, smirking a little.

John almost laughed, but then remembered why they were sitting where they were. “Oh, no, it was nothing like that – the earrings are amazing,” he said. Nadia smiled, and began to remove her plain studs and replace them with the jewellery in question.

“So, what now?” she asked Sherlock, who had gone back to looking at something on the floor. “And how did you know that the scuffs were from Muhammad?”

Sherlock straightened up, holding something between his finger and his thumb. “Cleaners,” he mumbled.

“What?” Nadia asked.

“Oh, of course,” John exclaimed. “The cleaners come in at ten in the morning, and seeing as this dorm’s right at the top of the house, they probably wouldn’t get to it until past eleven, so if these scuffs had been here before then, they would have been washed off.”

Sherlock nodded absently, abruptly walking towards the door.

“And no one would come in after the cleaners until lunch, everyone would be in lessons...” Nadia extrapolated as she and John followed Sherlock out of the room. “So he must have left a lesson and come back here for something. Why, though? And surely his teacher would have noticed something was up when he didn’t come back… ” she trailed off, brow furrowing.

“John, what time is it?” Sherlock asked, stopping suddenly.

“Uh,” John looked at his watch. “Ten past twelve, why?”

“Tell Molly Hooper to meet us in the store room on the physics floor of the science block,” Sherlock said. “It’s an emergency.”

“Yeah, sure,” John said, a little taken aback at Sherlock’s wording, taking out his phone and composing a text.

“What lesson was your brother supposed to be in third period?" Sherlock asked.

“Uh, maths, I think,” Nadia replied.

Sherlock whipped out his phone and began tapping at the screen. “With which teacher?”

“Moriarty.”

“Who?” John interrupted. He’d never heard that name before.

“New this year,” Sherlock and Nadia said in unison, glancing at each other – Nadia smiling, Sherlock, as he so often was, expressionless. “Very quiet, keeps himself to himself,” Sherlock continued absently. With a final tap, he locked his phone and put it back in his pocket. “Do you know Muhammad’s school account details?”

“Yes,” Nadia replied. “Emails?”

Sherlock nodded once. “Do it here, don’t go back to Frank, save time. Take a picture of anything suspicious with your phone - not a screenshot, those can be faked…” he took off down the stairs, John hastily finishing and sending the text and hurrying after him. “Meet us in the storage room when you’re done!” he called up to Nadia, who nodded and disappeared through another door.

When John caught up with Sherlock, who was waiting for him outside, what he saw was as close to worry as he had seen him come, and it made John stand a little straighter.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I think I know where they are.”

John felt his blood run cold. “Really? Should we not go, then? Find them? Are they on campus?”

“No, we should – I need to check with Molly,” Sherlock said, beginning to walk towards the science block. John followed. “I could be…”

“What? Wrong?” John said a little teasingly, but regretted it when Sherlock replied.

“No. Could be withdrawal.”

“What?”

“You say that a lot.”

“Shut up, Sherlock. Now is not the time,” John said, only now noticing the way his friend’s fingers were tapping against his thigh, as if of their own accord. “I don’t understand. Where do you think they are?”

Sherlock chewed his lip. “You’ll see. If I’m right, you’ll see.”

John decided not to press the matter and changed the subject. “So. Did those ten minutes play out the way you thought?”

Sherlock had the good grace to exhale a dry laugh. “No, admittedly. When I saw Nadia coming toward us, I could see she had a problem of quite some weight she was on her way to get guidance with – even you probably saw that.” John was about to protest the use of ‘even’ and ‘probably’ but Sherlock continued before he could. “I knew she was Sarah’s roommate, that was obvious as well. So there was a reasonable likelihood that she would be trying to find us.” Us? “I thought she was overreacting about something trivial, initially. I was going to tell her to find help elsewhere, but then I saw her ring.”

“Same as the earrings,” John said.

“Same as the earrings,” Sherlock agreed.  “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both this and the Turners’ case began with stolen jewellery, but I can’t quite work out the connection yet.”

John nodded, thinking. “I don’t know,” he began haltingly, worrying what he was about to say would sound moronic. “It’s almost like we were tipped off, or something,” Sherlock was looking at him, but John couldn’t read anything in his expression. Emboldened by the fact that Sherlock hadn’t dismissed him, he continued cautiously. “We never found Mrs Turner’s necklace, so maybe someone stole it to draw our attention to the family. And someone obviously sent us those earrings to draw us to Nadia… I wonder who it is. They should get some credit for helping, at least…” he trailed off, so deep in thought that he didn’t realise Sherlock had stopped walking until he heard a small “Oh,” from behind him.

He turned around to see Sherlock with his hands at his mouth as if praying, but John knew he was calling to an even higher power. After a moment, he dropped his hands and smiled, wide and triumphant.

“Maybe don’t do the whole smiling thing, Sherlock,” John advised as his friend caught up to him. “Kidnapped kid, remember?”

However, Sherlock paid no heed. “Omnia causa fiunt,” he said. “It does seem as if everything is happening for a reason, doesn’t it?” he shook his head to himself. “You are brilliant, John.”

“I’m – I’m what?”

“Perhaps not as a source of light, but as a conductor – at that you excel.”

“O – okay,” John stuttered, trying to keep up.

Slowly, the jollity faded from his friend’s face. “It does all seem horribly coincidental,” he fell silent for a moment, pensive. Suddenly he picked up the pace. “Need more data. Come on, Molly’s waiting.”

***

The two entered the storage room on the second floor of the science block to find Molly waiting for them, worrying at a hangnail. “What’s the matter?” She asked, looking between John and Sherlock anxiously. “John sounded urgent,”

“I should hope so,” Sherlock said, going to her and retrieving the small plastic box from his pocket. “I need you to text me what chemical compounds you find in this mud.” He handed her the container, looking directly into her eyes. “Now, please.”

“Oh,” she said, starting and moving to find a microscope. “Yes, of course, I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you, Molly,” Sherlock said, going to exit the room but stopping when his phone chimed in his pocket. He got it out and checked something. “Aha,” he said, holding it out for John to see. The screen displayed an email conversation.

Hi James,

Was just wondering if Muhammad Gazi was in your maths lesson period three?

Thanks,

Gavin Lestrade

Gavin,

He was for the first fifteen minutes, but I sent him back to house to get his textbook which he had left behind and he didn’t return. I wasn’t sure of the procedure in this case so I was just about to email you to make sure everything is as it should be.

James Moriarty

 

“Now we have proof Muhammad was not where he was supposed to be. Good,” Sherlock said.

“Wait – did you hack into Lestrade’s school account and send an email to another teacher pretending to be him?” John asked, a mixture of horrified and impressed.

“It wasn’t exactly difficult,” Sherlock dismissed. “Give me your phone.”

John was so caught up on Sherlock’s complete and utter brilliance oh my God that he handed it over without question. He saw his friend take a picture of the email exchange – “Screenshots can be faked, remember,” – and then return his phone, before tapping at his own.

“There. Replied something reassuring about Muhammad having simply bunked off and deleted the conversation so Lestrade won’t know a thing. Shall we go?”

“Uh, Sherlock?” Molly said timidly from behind them. “Is everything okay?”

“No, not really, Molly,” Sherlock said bluntly. “Possible kidnapping of a thirteen year old – do you know Nadia Gazi? She’ll be here in a few minutes. Could you please tell her that her brother will be back with her by the end of lessons. Hopefully. Remember to text me the results.” With that, Sherlock flounced out of the room, leaving John and Molly a little lost for words.

“Probably best if you don’t say the hopefully bit,” John corrected. “Thank you Molly.”

“Oh, it’s no problem, I hadn’t revised for that biology test anyway.”

“Shit, was that now?” John groaned, suddenly remembering that he was also supposed to be in that lesson.

“Never mind,” Molly smiled. “We’ll endure detention together.”

John grinned. “Right. I’d better go – thank you again, Molly, we really appreciate it.”

“That’s okay,” she said as John opened the door to leave.

He paused and turned back to her. “He really appreciates it. He really appreciates you. You know that, right? Respects you.”

“Oh, um,” Molly mumbled, grinning and fighting down a blush.

“I mean, he’s never said it and he never will but he really does.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I know.”

With smile shared between them, John (again) said goodbye to Molly and slipped out of the room.

***

When John eventually caught up with Sherlock, half way down the football pitch, his friend was texting with a mildly disgusted look on his face.

“Has Molly finished already?”

“Oh, hello, John,” Sherlock said, not looking up as he received another message. “No, this is the man who I think may be holding Muhammad.”

“Oh, right,” John said, then his brain caught up with him. “Wait – why do you have the number of a kidnapper?”

“Long… story…” Sherlock said slowly, focused on his phone. “God knows I don’t want to text him, but this way we’ll be allowed into his house without question.”

“Jesus Christ, are we on some sort of reconnaissance mission?” John exclaimed, feeling a jolt of nerves.

“Of sorts.”

“Should we not call the police? Or at least a teacher?”

“No, we’ll be fine.”

“Are you sure? Because I’m not.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, John,” Sherlock said, still texting. “This isn’t an action movie.”

“Whatever you say,” John replied, at this point severely doubting everything Sherlock had ever said.

They were silent for a couple of minutes, before Sherlock seemed to end his text conversation and put his phone away with an air of relief.

“That Moriarty guy wasn’t very turned on, was he?” John said, trying to make conversation to distract himself from worrying about Muhammad and how the hell Sherlock was planning to undo a kidnapping by himself. “He thought Muhammad was in Doyle.”

“Yes,” Sherlock agreed. “New teachers are a blessing. I was banking on him being clueless.”

“And he also went along with the whole Gavin thing.”

Sherlock turned to him. “What whole Gavin thing?”

“You signed the email Gavin Lestrade,” John said, and then, when Sherlock gave him a look to say ‘yes, and?’, “Lestrade’s first name is Greg.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is.”

They bickered for a while, before they came to a hedge, over which Sherlock nimbly leapt and then had to help haul John, which cut off the conversation. When they (John) had both recovered their (his) dignity a little, they began walking again.

John was a little alarmed to see that they were approaching the back of a nondescript street of semi-detached houses.

This is where Muhammad is?” John said.

“I think – ” Sherlock was interrupted by a ping from his phone. He took it out and read the message. “Thanks to Molly,” he said, putting it away again. “I now don’t think so, I know so.”

“You know so?”

“Yes. Well, with some room for doubt, obviously.”

“Sherlock, I don’t want any doubt involved in this, not today,” John warned.

“No, what I mean by that is that we can’t ever say with one hundred per cent certainty that something will happen or something will be true or that I am right,” Sherlock explained. “For example, because so far the sun has risen every single day, the mathematical probability of it rising tomorrow is very, very high, but that doesn’t mean it will.”

“But… it will,” John replied, if only to keep the conversation going.

“Not necessarily, I was just – it was a bad example,” Sherlock muttered. “If it makes you feel any better, if we aren’t correct I will likely be very embarrassed and you can gloat about it.”

“That doesn’t really help at all.”

“That’s because I’m right and your subconscious knows it.”

“Bollocks – ”

“John, listen,” Sherlock interrupted, and his tone of voice made John fall silent immediately. “We’re close now, so I’m going to explain the plan.”

The plan? I thought you said this wasn’t an action movie.”

“John, your nerves are talking and they are making you sound even more stupid than usual. Listen.”

***

As John crawled on his hands and knees across the cold earth towards the back fence of one of the houses he wondered how he got himself into the sorts of situations where he was required to do such things. Sherlock had said the crawling was necessary so that whoever was in the house – Sherlock had still neglected to say who exactly that was – would believe Sherlock was alone so he could distract them and John could slip in. He had also neglected to tell John what that distraction was going to be, and John was close to despair.

“Ready?” Sherlock said out of the corner of his mouth, lips barely moving. He was walking at the same pace that John was crawling and looked the very picture of tranquillity, hands casually in his pockets and surveying the area with disinterest.

John snorted. “If that’s what you want to call it,” he said, speeding up so that he reached the fence a little before Sherlock did, giving him time to crouch next to the gate that opened onto the garden and gather himself.

“See you in a bit,” Sherlock said as he undid the latch of the gate.

John considered telling him that he should consider becoming a ventriloquist as he appeared to have an aptitude for it, but all he could manage was a small, “Yeah,” as he watched Sherlock step over the threshold.

As soon as the gate swung shut, hinges squeaking, and Sherlock began to make his way across the unkempt garden towards the back of the house, John poked his head very slowly around the fence so that he could just peer through the gaps in the diagonal slats but wouldn’t be seen by anyone looking into the garden.

He saw Sherlock rub at his mouth in a gesture of uncharacteristic nerves and step over an abandoned plastic garden chair. He looked up as the back door of the house opened, and through it stepped a person with pointed features and eyes that, even from this distance, glinted coldly.

Holy shit.

It was the man who Sherlock had been talking to not one day previously, before John and he had had to board the coach to go into town – was that only yesterday? The man in the groundskeeper’s uniform, who had shouted after Sherlock about something “not going to last." The man who Sherlock had later described as a psychopath.

If John had been the praying type, he would have been on his knees in the mud. Which, by coincidence, he was.

The man appeared to be waiting for him on his doorstep – John assumed this was his house, or the house of his parents more likely. He looked too young to own the house - he still had acne. Sherlock stood in front of him and said something, to which the man replied something else, and soon the two were conversing tersely. The man had his arms crossed and his shoulders back and was apparently trying to look down his nose at Sherlock despite them being roughly the same height. John could not see Sherlock’s face, but his body language was languid and nonchalant, with a somewhat arrogant cock of the head.

It felt to John like their conversation was going on forever, measured in the too-fast thumps of his heart that made his entire body shudder with each one. He wiped his palms on his jeans, if only because they were tingling unpleasantly. A thought crossed his mind and he held out his left hand in front of him and noted that it was completely steady.

Sherlock and the man exchanged a few more sentences and John was beginning to despair when Sherlock must have said something because the man stilled. There was a new tension in Sherlock’s shoulders and a stasis fell and before John knew what was happening, Sherlock had taken his hands out of his pocket and clamped them to the man’s face and was kissing him, deep and hard, and the man, after a moment of surprise, clasped Sherlock’s coat and reciprocated hungrily, and John felt like he should not have been seeing this and it was too rough but Sherlock kept going – and began to drag the man upstairs, still joined at the mouth, and pulled him back against the wall of the small porch so that Sherlock had his back pressed against the brick. And then that pair of quicksilver eyes opened and met his own and John’s heart leapt – this is it, this is the distraction –

John stood up and ran silently through the garden, and as he neared the house he tried not to look at the entwined couple because there was something so desperately wrong about it, but he kept going until he was on the path and on the step and in the porch and only then did he glance at Sherlock, who was still watching him, and his eyes were just the same as they had ever been – bright and steady and familiar – and John took a breath and soundlessly slipped through the door into the house.

It was quiet. He was in a short hallway littered with shoes and umbrellas. The corridor opened, as Sherlock had said it would, onto what seemed to be a utility room. A washing machine was on, and its rhythmic thudding matched the rush of blood in John’s ears. There were two other doors leading out of the room, and John opened the one on the right, as per his instructions.

The door opened onto a staircase that led down into the basement, where he supposed the man with whom Sherlock was currently occupied lived. He slowly crept down the steps and as he did, more and more of the room revealed itself to him. There was a white sofa in the centre, with a coffee table covered in all sorts of drug paraphernalia in front of it, with some sort of power on the floor next to it. A large flat screen television was mounted on the wall opposite the king sized bed, on which was lying a small boy.

John rushed over to the bedside and put his fingers to Muhammad’s neck. His pulse was slow but strong, and his chest was rising and falling evenly. John breathed a sigh of relief. The boy was unconscious and tied to a bed post with some rope – so tightly that his skin was red and raw around the bindings. There was a lump on his head with a small trickle of dried blood that had run down the side of his face.

“Muhammad?” John said quietly. “Can you hear me?”

When there was no response, John tried slapping his face gently, then harder, but to no avail. John set to trying to undo the knots in the rope lashing the boy to the bed, trying to remember the rudimentary basics he remembered from CCF, but they were too tight and nothing he did appeared to have the slightest effect. He kept going until his fingers were rough from the friction, at which point he found the only sharp object in his vicinity – a pair of scissors – and tried sawing at the rope, but still nothing came of his efforts. He was on the verge of giving up when there were footsteps on the stairs and his heart stopped.

“Oh, thank God,” he breathed as his Sherlock descended into the basement. “You scared the shit out of me. Listen, you need to help me, Muhammad’s been knocked unconscious and I can’t undo these knots. Where’s that man? The one at the door.”

He watched as his friend calmly crossed the room. “Taken care of,” he said vaguely and sat on the bed next to the boy. And sat there.

And sat there.

“Sherlock, help me,” John repeated. When his friend still did nothing, John began to get angry. “Sherlock, what the hell are you doing? We need to get Muhammad out of here.”

“Yes, we do.”

“So help me untie these fucking knots!” John exclaimed.

“Keep your voice down."

“I will not! Sherlock, you need to help me, I can’t do it by myself!”

Sherlock checked his watch and John seethed, but just as he was about to shout at him again, the doorbell rang faintly from above.

John froze, but Sherlock got up and crossed to the stairs.

“Sherlock, what are you doing?” he hissed.

“Answering the door."

“We don’t know who it is, it could be dangerous – ” John began, but was interrupted by a muffled shout from above.

“This is the police, open up!”

Sherlock gave John a look as if to say, ‘there, happy?’ and started to ascend the stairs.

“They could be lying,” John tried, but Sherlock was gone before he could finish the sentence. “Fuck,” he cursed quietly, going back to fiddling with the knots.

He heard the sound of the front door opening above his head and a brief, muted conversation. John was concentrating so hard on the rope and on trying to work out what was being said that he almost didn’t notice when Muhammad made a small sound. The boy was drowsily trying to open his eyes.

John breathed a sigh of relief. “Muhammad?” he said. “Muhammad, wake up for me.”

The boy blinked a few times before focusing on John’s face, and when he did, the first emotion John saw on his features was confusion, then panic set in as he looked around at his surroundings.

“Where am I? Who are you?” he mumbled, trying to sit up.

“My name is John Watson, I go to Bart’s as well, I’m in lower sixth,” John said quickly. “I’m here to help you.”

“Why am I tied up? Where’s my sister?” Muhammad asked, fear creeping into his voice.

“Uh, I don’t really know,” John replied. “Your sister is waiting for you at school, don’t worry about her.” He was interrupted by a small scuffing sound on the stairs and he turned, expecting to see his roommate. “Sherlock, he’s woken – ”

His blood ran cold as, instead, he caught a glimpse of a pair of shoes he did not recognise stall and then run back up the stairs. “Shit,” John spat. “Did you see who that was?”

Muhammad shook his head. “They only came down a couple of steps.”

“Okay,” John said, trying to work out what to do. “Okay. Stay here, I’ll be back. All right?”

The child nodded and John got up and gave chase after the stranger.

He heard the back door banging shut just as he emerged into the utility room, but was distracted by the man from earlier, the one Sherlock had distracted, lying unconscious on the floor. After a few moments of indecision, his morals got the better of him and he bent down. He put a finger to his neck, and after finding a pulse, decided that a kidnapper was worth no more of his time and stood up. He ran down the corridor and into the garden. When he caught sight of someone running across the field behind the houses, he sprinted out of the gate but was too late to catch up with them before they disappeared into a small wood off to the right. All he could tell about them was that the fleeing person was male, young and blond.

He turned back, jogging back into the house, and was greeted at the door by Sherlock.

He looked over his shoulder and saw a handful of people in dark uniforms, and caught sight of walkie-talkies and batons – even a few guns. “So you did call the police.”

Sherlock smirked. “Of course I did. I’m not that arrogant. I just needed you to have some urgency.”

John breathed heavily and shook his head. “I fucking hate you.”

Sherlock smiled briefly. “Who were you chasing?”

“There was someone else in the house,” John explained as they went inside. “I only saw his shoes, though – he was coming down the stairs into the basement when he must have heard me and Muhammad talking and took off. I couldn’t catch him though, he was too fast.”

“He?”

“Yeah,” John breathed, still out of breath. “He was blond, young-ish. Never saw him up close.”

They watched as a paramedic checked over the man on the utility room floor. When John caught himself mentally taking notes, he asked quietly, “What did you do to him?”

“Rohypnol,” Sherlock replied. “Very high dose. So high it wasn’t strictly legal, but needs must.”

“Christ, you roofied him?” John said, a little too loudly, making the paramedic look up.

“Shh,” Sherlock said, quickly changing the subject. “Shall we go and see Muhammad?”

In the basement, Muhammad had been cut free of his bindings and was being looked over by paramedics. He had a blanket around his shoulders and a tear was tracing its way silently down his cheek. John introduced Sherlock and they told Muhammad a little about what had happened. John tried to be as charming as possible and soon Muhammad began to stop sniffling. The boy confirmed Sherlock’s deductions and added extra bits of information, like his attacker sneaking up behind him and pulling a pillow case over his head before he could see who it was. He wasn’t entirely sure when he had been knocked out, but the paramedics said that it didn’t matter, a point which Sherlock contested until John raised his voice.

“So you saw the circle, then?” Muhammad said with a small smile. “I hoped someone would. It was a small hope, but still.”

“But it worked,” John said gently. “We were very impressed with your quick thinking, weren’t we, Sherlock?”

Sherlock hummed. “You and your sister were… good,” he said awkwardly.

“That’s pretty much the highest compliment he gives,” John said, his mind recollecting unbidden the way the word ‘brilliant’ had rolled off his friend’s tongue just a couple of hours previously. “Speaking of Nadia, would you like to talk to her?”

Muhammad’s eyes widened and he nodded firmly. John phoned Molly, who had been waiting for news with Nadia since Sherlock and John had left her in the storage room. Nadia was put on the phone and John passed it to Muhammad and then pulled Sherlock away a few metres to give him some privacy.

They watched Muhammad for a while, John smiling as the boy’s eyes welled up with tears but his mouth continued grinning. He looked at Sherlock and there was a barely-detectable softness to his gaze, a small upturn to his mouth, that made John forgive him without even knowing what for.

“The police are going to ask for statements,” Sherlock said after a while.

“Mmm,” John agreed. “Obviously we can’t tell them about the necklace.”

“Obviously not,” his friend replied. “I think the best course of action would be to stick as close to the truth as possible. A girl came to find us because I like mysteries. She said her brother had been kidnapped. We found cocaine in the mud from the bottom of the attacker’s shoe – ”

“We did?” John interrupted.

“Yes. This man is a well-known drug dealer who gets most of his clients through the school he used to attend, our school, so we thought we’d try at his house, and called the police just in case.”

“How much of that is the truth?” John asked warily.

“All of it. We are simply not mentioning some things.”

“Such as?”

Sherlock made a frustrated sound. “Have a guess.” When John gave him a glare, he rolled his eyes. “Well, he’s more than simply a well-known dealer to me, isn’t he?” he snapped quietly.

“Oh,” John said dumbly. “So he was where you got all your…” he waved his hand in a vague gesture, “…stuff,”

Sherlock said nothing, watching the police at work.

“I thought you two seemed more than acquaintances,” John said, hoping to pull at least a smile from his friend to ease the tension. Sherlock gave him a quick quirk of his mouth and a small snort, but that was enough.

“He was a rubbish kisser,” Sherlock deadpanned, and John burst into laughter, attracting stern looks from some police officers but not caring in the slightest.

***

The pair were driven back to school in the back of a police car, after having given statements and seeing Muhammad off as he was driven to the san and watching the man – Victor Trevor, Sherlock had finally told John – being dumped in the back of a police van, still unconscious, and then staying for a little while longer because Sherlock had found a police officer to bombard with questions and John had found a paramedic to chat to. Then, just as they were about to leave, Victor’s parents came home and both Sherlock and John stayed to enjoy the soap opera dramatics that played out when the police broke the news to Mr and Mrs Trevor that their son was a drug-dealing kidnapper.

“I am knackered,” John yawned as the police car drove away and they began to walk up to the front door of Doyle.

“Understandable,” Sherlock said.

“Aren’t you?”

“A little,” Sherlock said, after a pause.

“That is complete and utter horseshit, Sherlock Holmes,” John laughed, punching in the code. “You’re going to be out like a light as soon as – ”

John was interrupted by a huge cheer as he opened the door and they stepped over the threshold.

“Oh my god,” he breathed.

All of the Doyle sixth form was congregated in the foyer, along with nearly as many again from elsewhere – friends of Nadia and Muhammad, John guessed, all whooping and clapping. Lestrade was grinning proudly, with Nadia and Muhammad hand in hand next to him. Sarah was there as well, smiling. John glanced at Sherlock, who looked for all the world as if he’d just been doused in cold water.

“Welcome home, you troublemakers,” Lestrade said, once the noise had receded a little.

“Uh… thanks?” John said, and suddenly there was a rush of movement next to him and he turned to see Nadia gripping Sherlock in a tight hug. The cheering started up again, giving John cover to mouth to his friend, ‘hug back!’, to which Sherlock looked very confused and slightly annoyed, but he hesitantly brought his arms up to reciprocate. John grinned from ear to ear, so much that it was almost beginning to hurt. He turned around and Muhammad was standing in front of him with his hand held out in front of him.

“I just wanted to thank you,” he said deliberately, formally.

John looked down at the proffered hand and back to the small face with the big eyes. “Forget about that,” he said, brushing the hand of his way and swooping his arms under Muhammad’s and picked him up in a hug, much to the audible delight of the gathered. Muhammad laughed in his ear and after a moment, John gently put him down.

Nadia, who had separated herself from Sherlock’s surely sub-par hug, put a protective hand on her brother’s back. “Thank you,” she said simply. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

“He wasn’t a particularly good kidnapper, Muhammad was more or less safe,” Sherlock replied with all his usual tact.

John sighed, and said, “By that he means that it was our pleasure. Well, not pleasure, but you know. You're welcome.”

There few a few titters from the crowd, and then Molly appeared from behind someone, Sherlock’s clear plastic box in her hand. “Here,” she said, blushing bright red. “I didn’t think you’d want the mud back,”

“Thank you, Molly,” Sherlock said, taking the box and pocketing it. John glared at Sherlock until he caught his eye.

What?

That wasn’t a thank you!

Sherlock looked back at Molly and pursed his lips, but there was a gentleness in his eyes that said he understood. He seemed to deliberate for a moment, before leaning in and placing a soft kiss on her cheek. “Thank you, Molly.”

Molly froze in shock. “That’s – it’s no problem,” she stumbled in reply, before moving back into the crowd, who had begun whooping again.

“Well, boys,” Lestrade began. “We all just wanted to say how proud we are of you. I mean, we always knew you were clever, Sherlock, but by god…”

John couldn’t believe what was happening. He felt as if he was in a dream, but he knew that this time he wouldn’t wake up gasping for air and trying not to sob in the darkness. No, he thought to himself. Not tonight.

“…but unfortunately, as much as you deserve it, you don’t get a lie-in tomorrow, so I think it’s bed time – for all of you,” there were assorted groans and protests at this, but Lestrade insisted and in a few moments, the foyer was almost clear of people.

Sherlock and John said goodbye to Nadia and Muhammad, and to Molly, who was still a little pink in the cheeks. Sarah gave each of them a kiss on the cheek as she left, and soon it was just them and Lestrade in the foyer.

Their housemaster looked at them, smiling, nodded once, then seemed to catch himself. “Right. To bed, both of you.”

“Yes, sir,” John said, he and Sherlock beginning to walk upstairs.

“That was nice,” John said.

“It was…” Sherlock began.

“Kind of weird?” John supplied, seeing his friend struggle.

“For want of a better word, yes,” Sherlock agreed. “It was very kind of weird.”

“It was good of you to say thank you to Molly properly,” John reflected after a few moments. When Sherlock didn’t reply, John continued. “Not just for today, I mean. From what I’ve heard, she comes at your every beck and call. She doesn’t have to do that for you, you know. She kept an eye on you when I wasn’t around to do it.”

Sherlock hummed, looking uncomfortable, and John wondered whether he should have brought up that time after such a positive day. However, they were saved from having to say anything more by a shout from below.

“You know, John,” Lestrade yelled, and they stopped and peered over the banisters. “That boy next to you is going to grow up into a great man, whatever he does. But with you by his side, he might even turn out to be a good one.”

John grinned, and looked at his friend, whose mouth was twisted in the way that it did when he couldn’t stop himself smiling but by God, was he trying.

“Oh, I don’t know about that, sir,” Sherlock shouted back. “I might be a bad influence on him.”

“You’d better not be, Sherlock Holmes,” Lestrade returned, moving into his doorway. “Else I will find you.”

John chuckled as Lestrade disappeared into his house and he and Sherlock resumed their upwards journey.

“So how does it feel to be the hero for once?” John asked.

“Me? I doubt they would have had that homecoming if it were just me, John.”

“All I did was apologise for your general rudeness,” John countered. “That’s basically my job.”

Sherlock fell solemn. “I’m not a hero, John. Heroes don’t exist.”

“No. No, you’re only saying that because you can’t handle your fame,” John teased. “Don’t worry. Everything will have blown over by next week and you’ll be hated again, back to the status quo.”

“Next week?” Sherlock said. “That is way too long. I’ll have to find a way to speed up the process.”

John laughed, and suddenly very much wanted to give Sherlock a hug. It felt like his friend had been away for a long time, and John knew that by the next afternoon he’d be complaining to Mike about him again, and that Sherlock was nowhere near out of the woods of his mind just yet, but with his dealer gone and the support of his friends behind him, John allowed himself to feel the tiniest glimmer of hope, an ember glowing in the darkness.

That is, until he heard his friend contemplating stealing all the forks in the house at which point John had to shout at him for a good three minutes to put the idea out of his head.

***

John heard the door of the shower next to him open and close and the water turn on.

“Sherlock?” he called over the running water.

“Yes?” came the reply.

“You know when you sent Nadia to check her brother’s emails, what did you think she was going to find?”

“To tell the truth,” Sherlock said after a pause, “I thought the chance of her finding anything suspicious was very low. I just wanted her to feel like she was doing something useful. To keep her busy.”

John stilled momentarily.

“What?” Sherlock said suspiciously.

“I just – that was quite a considerate thing to do, that’s all,” John replied, finishing rinsing the shampoo out of his hair.

He heard the sound of Sherlock opening a bottle of something. “Why always the tone of surprise, John.”

“No, I – ” John turned his shower off. “I actually had a hunch that you didn’t think whatever she would find was important. I was just hoping you didn’t do it because you wanted her out of the way or something,”

Sherlock snorted. “Nice to know you hold me in such high esteem.”

John sighed in frustration. “I didn’t mean it like that. You just get a bit… logical sometimes, especially in situations like that.”

“It’s not as if I could lead a sodding party of people into that house, discretion was the priority,” Sherlock reasoned. “Besides, three’s a crowd, and all that.”

“Three’s a crowd in social situations, not when you’re breaking into a kidnapper’s house!” John exclaimed, wrapping himself in a towel and opening the shower door.

“Are you telling me that wasn’t a social situation?”

John grinned, but made sure Sherlock couldn’t hear it in his voice. “You are a truly awful person, Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock grinned, but made sure John couldn’t hear it in his voice. “Piss off, John Watson.”

***

“How i’ da fucgh did you wroofie Victah an’way?”

“I did not understand a word of that.”

John took his toothbrush out of his mouth and spat the froth into the sink. “I said: how in the fuck did you roofie Victor?”

“Oh,” Sherlock said, screwing the cap on his toothpaste. “Orally. Needless to say he thought it was something more recreational.”

“Mm. Mm!” John nearly choked on the water he was swirling in his mouth, spluttering it out, much to Sherlock’s annoyance as some splashes got on his pyjamas. “You mean you had it in your mouth and then – you – swapped?”

Sherlock nodded.

“That’s gross, Sherlock,” John said, and Sherlock flicked some water at his face, so John flicked some back, and before long both were sopping wet and apologising to the very displeased year ten who had got in the line of fire while trying not to giggle.

***

“What did you mean about withdrawal earlier?” John asked, sketching.

Sherlock, who seemed to be cataloguing something on one of those leather notebooks of his, replied, “Oh. I thought I smelt cocaine in the mud in the dorm, very faintly, so I couldn’t be sure, which is why I asked Molly to take a look. It could easily have been my brain playing tricks on me. My hypothesis was, and still is that Victor was not the one to do the actual kidnapping; whoever did that did spend some time at his house though, prior to coming for Muhammad. Did you notice the cocaine that had been spilt on Victor’s floor? I think the attacker walked through it, got it stuck to the bottom of his shoe.”

John had stopped drawing, looking in awe at his friend, who looked up and gave him an inquisitive look. “I don’t know how you do it,” John explained.

“Do what?” Sherlock asked.

John snorted. “Everything,” he said, breaking the eye contact and going back to his sketchbook. “Fucking everything.”

***

Sherlock lay on his back, plucking at his violin. John lay on his own bed opposite him, putting the final touches to his apology email to Dr Hope.

“What?” Sherlock asked suddenly, making John jump.

“What what?” he asked.

“What’s distracting you?”

“Distra–?”

“Yes.” Sherlock interrupted. “You’ve been writing that email for seven minutes and have backspaced about twelve times more than you have pressed the space bar. You’re not concentrating on it. Distracted.”

John sighed. “I was just thinking about Victor.”

“What about him?”

“I don’t – the thought of him knowing you before I did, it’s weird, that’s all.”

“Why?”

“Someone’s nosey this evening,” John said, trying to work out how to end the email – yours sincerely? Yours faithfully? Love from? But when Sherlock’s silence remained expectant, he elaborated somewhat reluctantly. “I don’t like the thought of fourteen year old you and illicit substances and someone older than you. Creeps me out.”

“I knew what I was doing,”

“Mhm,” John hummed sarcastically. “Sure,”

“He’s only two years older than me, anyway,” Sherlock mumbled.

John sighed again. “Listen, Sherlock. Did you and him ever... uh, were you ever...?”

“Why?”

“You don’t have to answer,” John said. “I just wanted to know. Today didn’t seem like the first time, so I just thought – ”

Sherlock stopped plucking. “We were never together, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Not together doesn’t mean – ”

“I know it doesn’t,” Sherlock interrupted. Then, after a pause, “But today was not the first time. Well deduced.”

“I thought boys weren’t your area,” John said carefully.

“For crying out loud,” Sherlock breathed. “All of that is unnecessary and messy and disadvantageous. I only did what he wanted to get more drugs. Okay?”

John swallowed and typed a couple of letters. The silence hung heavy between them. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just wondering.”

Sherlock sat up. “I’m not upset,” he said, brow furrowed. “It’s just a boring conversation topic, that’s all. Anyway,” he said, reaching for his bow, “now he’s off to have a nice long stay in prison so I never have to see him again, which is as close to an act of god as I’m ever going to experience.”

“That’s true,” John agreed, for want of anything to say. “Hang on, act of god? It was you who sent him to prison.”

Sherlock put his bow to the strings. “Exactly,” he said, and John sighed in exasperation and went back to his email.

Sherlock began to play a piece that was cheerful and bright, and John didn’t recognise it for a few seconds – it was one he had played a couple of weeks previously, and John had smiled and asked him what it was and who it was by and I really liked that one, Sherlock – and when John recognised it, he recognised that its meaning had changed; now it meant he was forgiven, he was thanked, he was appreciated. The music swelled from delicacy to power to delicacy again, and there was a thump on the wall of the room next to them and a muffled yell of “Shut up!”, but Sherlock only played louder, catching John’s eye and grinning with him.

Chapter Text

Harry:John! We got a webcam on the computer @ home!!

Harry:Now we can skype :)

Harry:Wait do u even have a skype?

Harry:What’s ur username??

John:Wow, hey Harry, just got back from a lesson to see all these texts haha. No, I don’t have a skype, my laptop’s webcam is broken :/

Harry:Aw :(

John:BUT I will set an account up on Sherlock’s Mac! I'm sure he won't mind :)

Harry:Yay! Tell me when you’ve got it all done and we’ll chat :)

***

The bubbly dialling tone seemed to be going on forever – Harry wondered whether something had gone wrong and was about to end the call when John answered.

“Harry!”

“John!”

Her brother was sitting at a desk wearing his school uniform – a navy blue jumper with a light blue shirt underneath, collar undone and tie loose. It was the end of the school day for him, Harry guessed, whereas she had come home an hour ago. Behind him appeared to be another desk underneath a raised bed, both of which were covered in papers and what looked to be scientific equipment, and even –

“Is that a jar of eyes?”

“Where?” her brother replied, turning around and frowning. Once he spotted them, he got up and moved closer to inspect. “What the hell?” she heard him curse. “Sherlock, where did you get these?”

A deep voice came from somewhere off to Harry’s left. “Biology. Do you think I have the time to be extracting eyes willy-nilly?”

“Christ,” John muttered, reluctantly picking up the jar with two fingers and bringing it back over to the computer for Harry to see.

“Ew, gross,” she said, peering at the screen. “Kind of cool, though,” she said after a moment.

“No, not kind of cool,” John said, getting up again and out of sight to Harry’s right. He raised his voice so as to be heard by the computer’s microphone. “Not when you have to live with this kind of thing twenty-four-seven,”

“You’re just a wuss,” Harry teased as he came back into view, settling back into his chair. “So, how’ve you been?”

“Not bad,” John replied, smiling. “Uh, pretty good, actually – oh! I’ve got something to tell you and mum.”

The last word drove a spike of apprehension through Harry. The two hadn’t been on speaking terms for the last couple of days. That morning had been a little better, though; at least that morning they had acknowledged each other’s presence by wordlessly passing one another the milk at the breakfast table.

“Yeah, I’ll just – ” Harry got up. Swallowed. “I’ll just go and get her.”

She walked out of the camera’s range and scrubbed a hand over her face. She knew she should have apologised earlier, but ironically it was the pride she knew she had inherited from her mother that had stopped her. Harry could hear her bustling about in the kitchen, and silently walked into the doorway, and then stopped, suddenly unsure of what to say or do.

Her mother was fishing about in a cupboard for something, and before Harry could even form a rough draft of her apology, she turned around and jumped.

“Harry,” she breathed, a weathered hand on her chest. “You scared the crap out of me.”

“Sorry,” Harry replied. She gave herself a quick mental pep-talk and took a breath. “Mum, I, um. I just wanted to apologise for the other day. I shouldn’t have said what I did, I was just tired and Clara and I had had a fight and I just – ”

“Harry. Stop.” Her mother said, as gently as she ever said anything, which these days was not so much gentle as firm but not angry. “Thank you for saying sorry. Now let’s forget all about it because I for one need something to drink.”

Harry had to stop herself from widening her eyes in surprise; she had not been expecting such smooth sailing. However, she wasn’t going to question it, so she changed the subject. “Oh, mum, John’s on Skype and says he has something to tell us.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” her mother replied, filling a glass with red wine.

“He was smiling, so I don’t think it’s bad news,” Harry reasoned. “Are you coming?”

Her mother nodded and they returned to the living room, Harry sitting at the computer and her mother pulling up a chair she had dragged from the dining room to sit beside her.

“Hi, mum!” John said once he saw her.

“Hello, Johnny,” their mother replied, a rare smile breaking across her features. “It’s nice to see your face again.”

John laughed. “It’s not even been a fortnight.”

“A fortnight’s a long time,” Harry said truthfully. She still wasn’t used to John’s absence. Passing his empty bedroom at night felt alien and the house seemed to lack something, something warm and homely and dependable.

“So, how are you? How’s Sherlock?” Mrs Watson asked, taking a sip of her wine.

“I’m fine, passing tests, winning rugby matches, the usual,” there was a snort from someone off screen, and John turned to the source, looking a mixture of annoyed and amused. “Okay, we haven’t won the last couple of rugby matches.”

“No, you lost them humiliatingly, John,” came the voice again. “Be precise.”

John smiled. “As for Sherlock, why don’t you ask his highness himself?” he got up and appeared to be tugging at someone, and Sherlock was pulled into frame, tieless, jumperless, and holding a pair of forceps.

“Hello Jo, Harry,” he said, he and John trying to share a chair. Harry had forgotten just how posh his brother’s roommate was, and only seemed to be getting posher.

“Hello Sherlock, love,” Mrs Watson said. “How are you? How’s your family?”

“I am well, thank you – passing tests, catching evildoers, the usual,” he said, drawing an almost imperceptible smile from John. “My family is just the same as ever, vague and frosty, but thank you for inquiring. I see you have a new boyfriend, Jo, I’m pleased for you.”

Harry turned to her mother in confusion. “You do?” That would explain why she took my apology so well, Harry thought to herself. She took pity on me because of Clara. This man’s made her soft.

Her mother looked uncomfortable. “I was going to tell you when things got a bit more serious.”

“And when would that be?” Harry asked, trying not to sound affronted.

“What’s he called, mum?” John interjected, trying to change the subject. “What’s he like?”

“He’s called David,” she said, a fondness creeping into her eyes. “He’s lovely. A builder, couple of years older than me. I’d like for you to meet him, Harry,” she said, turning to her daughter, who had to bite her tongue to stop herself saying something about her father. It was an automatic response and she knew it was wrong for her to deny her mother a second chance at a relationship, but it was taking a long time to unlearn. “So you’ve had my news, John; now what’s yours?”

“Oh, yeah. Well…”

John opened his mouth and suddenly Harry was swept up in a story of kidnapping and drug dealing and housebreaking and of police and mystery and mayhem, and by the end of it both she and her mother were slack-jawed in disbelief.

“You should have seen the look on his face when Nadia hugged him, it was priceless,” John laughed, grinning at a tight-lipped Sherlock.

“God almighty,” Mrs Watson muttered. “Are you pulling my leg?”

“Nope,” John said. “I know – all sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it?”

“That’s an understatement,” Harry replied.

John put his hand over his heart. “Swear on my life it’s all true.”

“I thought I told you not to go looking for trouble,” Harry’s mother reprimanded.

“In all fairness, Jo,” Sherlock piped up, the voice of reason. “It seems as if trouble comes looking for us.”

“Well, make yourselves less find-able, then!” she countered.

John laughed, and Harry even saw the smallest trace of a smile at the edges of Sherlock’s mouth, a ghost of the one she had been privy to on Halloween.

“Oh, I almost forgot, we got a mention in the local paper today,” John said, rooting around somewhere off screen. “Nothing big, obviously, everything is very hush-hush, but loo.,”

He held up a newspaper cutting, a tiny block of text headed by the words: SCHOOL KIDNAPPING RESOLVED BY SIXTH FORMERS.

“What does it say?” Harry asked, struggling to read the tiny font pixelated by the screen.

John mock-cleared his throat. “’Earlier this week, a sixteen year old girl noticed the absence of her brother from their school, which cannot be named for legal reasons. She sought the help of a duo of boys in her year who are renowned throughout the school for their penchant for mysteries, and together they came to the conclusion that the boy, three years the junior of his sister, had been taken from his dormitory and was being held against his will in a house nearby. The boys, sixteen and seventeen years of age, called the police who dealt with the situation. An official police spokesperson made this statement when asked for a comment: “Obviously this case is a very sensitive one, but we can tell you that the boy and his sister are happily reunited and are taking some time off school with their parents. As for the perpetrator, he has been arrested and is no longer a threat to the general public.”’ We’re famous!”

“If you say so,” Harry said, smiling at the pride in her brother’s eyes.

“Did I notice a few discrepancies in there?” Mrs Watson asked.

“Yeah, well, the police can’t really say that all their work was done by a couple of teenagers.”

“And probably better than they would have done, anyway,” Sherlock muttered.

“See, Sherlock likes to think he’s better than the police,” John explained. “More accurate, quicker, better dressed – ”

“I never said the last one!” Sherlock interjected.

“Yeah, but come on,” John replied. “You’re the vainest person I know, so you would think it.”

Sherlock considered this for a moment. “Well, it is true.”

“What, your sun-sized vanity?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes at John.

“Oh, you’re right, I’m sorry; it’s your ego in general that is sun-sized.”

Harry observed the back and forth before her with amusement and not a little curiosity. She had always known her brother to be funny, witty, all the rest of it, but he had hardly ever shown it with his friends from his previous school. When Harry had seen them together, there had just seemed to be a general ruckus, typical teenage boy shouting, complaining, mocking. But with Sherlock, John was different. Not different to how Harry knew him, but to how John’s old friends knew him. It was odd to see her brother so casual, so gentle in his teasing, though his tone of voice wouldn’t have suggested it. All the humour was in the eyes, the relaxed shoulders. And to see Sherlock so open to it; she wouldn’t have imagined he would have been the sort of person to put up with such non-speech, speaking but not really saying anything. She had imagined him to give a lecture each time he opened his mouth, and expect others to do the same.

They both seemed so… at home. In a place that to Harry meant the complete antithesis. They fit. In; together.

“You know what I’ve just realised,” John said. “Neither of you have actually seen our room..”

“No, we haven’t,” Harry agreed.

“Why don’t you give us a tour?” Mrs Watson suggested.

“I’ll give it a try,” John said, reaching forward and fiddling with something Harry couldn’t see and then grabbing the laptop, while explaining, “So, what you can see behind me is Sherlock’s bed and all his crap – ”

“I think you mean essential scientific apparatus,” Sherlock interjected, getting up and moving out of frame.

“Yeah, whatever,” John replied, and he lifted the laptop so that Harry and her mother were briefly afforded a wobbly view of more of the same bed and desk and the corner of a chest of drawers before everything blurred and pixelated a little as John turned the laptop around and walked somewhere.

When the image became more stable again, it was of a reasonably-sized room fitted out for two people. One side clearly belonged to Sherlock, as he was sitting on the messier desk and rubbing what looked like the bow of a violin with a block of rosin, and the other to John – his side was neat, tidy, and Harry recognised his duvet from home and his shoes that were lined up on the floor.

“I have my back against the door at the moment,” came John’s voice from off screen. “So this is what you’d see if you came to visit. I don’t know if you can see our view from the window but it’s lovely – hang on – ” John walked forward through the room, their view bobbing about.

“I’m going to get car sick in a minute,” Mrs Watson said.

“Sorry mum,” John replied. “I’ll put you down on the windowsill, here,” the change in the level of light caused the image to whiten for a moment as the laptop was put down, but when it settled, Harry saw the branch of a tree, its few remaining leaves deep reds and purples, and beyond that a playing field, on which some indistinct figures were kicking a ball to one another. Beyond the playing field the countryside stretched for as far as the webcam could see, and while Harry couldn’t make them out, Harry imagined rolling hills, greying as the winter approached.

“Bit different from home, huh?” John’s voice said softly.

“Bit different, yeah,” Harry agreed.

“So this is what my thousands of pounds in school fees are going towards,” Mrs Watson joked. “For you to wake up to this every morning.”

“Bargain, if you ask me,” John said, and then they were being lifted again, and turned so that they could see John again. “You should see the sunrises though, they are – ”

He was interrupted by a loud banging off screen. He lowered the laptop slightly, eyes on something beyond the screen, as there was the sound of a door opening.

“Holmes, Eddie sent me to get you for practise, you’re late,” came the voice of a stranger, the laptop microphone struggling to pick it up.

Sherlock’s voice replied, and Harry was a little surprised at the acidity of his tone. “Tell Eddie – ”

“Just go, Sherlock,” John interrupted. His face was no-nonsense, his voice the one that Harry had only heard used on her when she was being unnecessarily difficult. John had learned it from their father when they were small. Harry remembered him imitating the man behind his back.

After a moment, John’s eyes traced a movement that Harry couldn’t see. There was a noise like wood on wood and footsteps, and then all the hardness left her brother’s features. He began walking.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Sherlock isn’t the most well-liked person here, as you might have guessed. You remember me telling you about the house singing competition?” Harry answered that she did. “Well, it’s next week, so there seems to be a practise every spare moment.” He passed through a door and into a corridor, another window set into a wall the colour of cream behind him. “We are now in the corridor where the all the lower sixth’s rooms are,” he explained, walking down it. “Me and Sherlock are right at the end and I refuse to read anything into that.”

“I don’t know why I even have to be there,” Sherlock complained from off screen. “I know it, they know I do. I don’t see what the logic is in practising when I know it.”

John rolled his eyes. “You don’t need to be with them, Sherlock, but they need to be with you. You’re by far the best musician there, but don’t tell them I said that.” There was a pause before John turned back to the screen with exasperated amusement in his eyes. “He’s like a toddler.”

They continued down the corridor, passing identical doors on each side, decorated with things. John stopped walking for a moment as, Harry assumed, he opened a door, and at the same moment a door opened right at the end of the corridor where his and Sherlock’s room was and a boy walked out, coming down the corridor towards them.

John must have noticed this approaching stranger in the screen, as he turned his head around and greeted him. “Hey, Mike.”

“Hey, John,” the boy replied, and Harry recognised his name; John had talked about him a few times before, had said he was a good friend. “Who’re you talking to?”

“Oh – Mike, meet mum and Harry; mum and Harry meet Mike.”

“Hi Mrs Watson, hi Harry,” Mike said, waving. Now he was closer, Harry could see he had a friendly, open face and a pair of glasses with tortoiseshell rims that didn’t seem to fit with his stocky build. “What are you up to, John?”

“Going down to show Harry and mum the house singing ensemble,” John explained, walking again now that Mike had caught up. He adjusted the angle of the laptop so that Mike was in the frame. “Care to join us?”

“So you’re going to watch Sherlock play,” Mike said with a teasing smile. John sighed. Something told Harry that kind of remark was not uncommon. “And there is nothing I would like more than to come and watch,” Mike continued sarcastically. “But I can’t.”

John and Mike chatted about Mike’s apparently failing relationship with the girlfriend he was going to meet up with as they walked through the house. Harry had to admit to herself that Doyle didn’t seem nearly as unpleasant as she’d imagined. She supposed it was only natural for her to imagine the place that took her brother away from home to be Draconian and run down, but she was overwhelmingly glad each time they rounded a corner and the walls remained clean, neutral colours, the pictures hanging there remained full of smiling faces, the carpet remained vacuumed, the boys they passed remained surprisingly normal – much like the boys Harry passed on the street or in her school, save the more expensive clothes and actually half decent haircuts.

“Look at this,” John said suddenly as they passed through another door, and he turned the laptop around so that Harry and Mrs Watson were facing the way he was walking.

They were standing at the top of a long spiral stair case, the walls lined with photos that went from full colour to sepia to grainy black and white the further down the stairs one went. John tipped the laptop so that Harry and Mrs Watson could see over the banister to the foyer below.

Sherlock had just reached the bottom of the stairs and he looked up. “If you dare drop my laptop, John,” he said, leaving his warning menacingly open, and Harry winced at the thought of the fate of the expensive Mac on the flagstone floor.

John and Mike continued on their descent, the laptop’s view safely back on their faces, John explaining about the plan for Doyle’s performance in the coming competition. At the bottom of the stairs John said goodbye to Mike, who left through an old and very heavy-looking door. The laptop’s microphone was picking up a few muted strains of music which got louder as John crossed the foyer.

“Okay, you’ve got to be quiet now,” he said, his voice low, as he turned the laptop around. Harry saw as her brother’s hand closed around the dented handle of another door, turning slowly. He pushed it open ever so slowly, gradually revealing what Harry guessed to be a common room. She saw the counter of a kitchenette first as John slipped through. A sink, a fridge, a toaster, with more appliances she was sure, but John had begun to walk towards a cluster of sofas clad in worn maroon or blue covers. A few people were sitting on them, on their phones or playing a video game on mute. The music stopped and there was some talking off screen about bars and beats that Harry didn’t understand. John walked up to a sofa and sat down on it, placing the laptop in front of but facing away from him and angling the screen so that Harry and her mother could watch the musicians.

Sherlock was holding a violin and talking to the boy sitting at the piano about something technical. A huge boy with the broadest shoulders and thickest neck Harry had ever seen was holding a banjo that looked comically tiny cradled in his thick arms, while a very skinny boy who looked as if he’d lived under a rock his entire life was sitting at a drum kit. A bassist looked on, fiddling with his pick.

The talking continued for a few moments, before the boy at the piano counted down from four and Sherlock tucked his violin under his chin and began to play.

***

After the ensemble had played through the song a couple of times, John slipped out of the room with the laptop. Once they were back in room twenty-one, he set the machine down on his desk again and settled in front of it.

“…even with your terrible singing, John,”

“Mmm, if they play loud enough they should be able to drown you out, dear, don’t worry,” his mother agreed with Harry.

“Oh, thanks,” John said, rolling his eyes.

“I have to admit I was kind of surprised that Sherlock was so good,” Harry said.

John laughed. “You don’t know him – brain bigger than Saturn, that boy.”

“Yeah, he might have a brain, but a brain for facts and a brain for music are not the same thing,” Harry countered.

“No, I suppose not,” John conceded. Then, after a moment, “I think it’s the non-brainy side of him, his violin.”

“So the non-Sherlock side,” Mrs Watson joked.

“No,” John mused. “No, I’ve never met anyone who was more himself than Sherlock, there’s no un-Sherlock side to him. It’s more like… I don’t know, like he stops being so… logical, stops trying to explain everything and… it’s like he’s speaking, but properly. A lot of what he says is either bullshit or so cryptic you can’t work out what he actually means. He stops all that, when he plays. It’s nice.”

Harry couldn’t keep an incredulous snort from escaping.

John scowled. “What?”

“Oh, just write him a bloody sonnet already, would you, John?”

Mrs Watson smacked her daughter on the arm, but Harry only laughed.

“Oh, come on, how many times,” John said wearily. “It’s not like that. He’s my best friend, and if I’ve told you once, I’ve – ”

“Is he?” Mrs Watson asked, and the curiosity on her face was barely masked as nonchalance.

“Is he what?” John asked.

“Your best friend?”

“My – ?” Oh. Did he say that? Did I? It’s not like that, he’s – oh. He hadn’t realised. That he had said that.

That he was that.

And he also hadn’t realised. Made real, made it real. It hadn’t felt wrong, making it real, saying it. Neither mouth nor brain had stumbled, merely walked on like it was a step known to muscle memory. Either wooden or choreographed. Either or. Both.

John’s mind raced through all those he had called his best friend in his lifetime. It wasn’t a particularly long race, and he finished it with a growing sense of apprehension.

Was he?

Is he? Him, of all people?

But who else.

You see, but you don’t observe, John.

And he couldn’t see anyone in Sherlock’s place. Not for a second.

“I guess,” John said. “Yeah. Yeah, he is.”

“Talking about me?” came a voice from the doorway, and John turned around to see Sherlock entering the room, carrying his violin and an expression that was deadpan save for the eyes, those eyes that held that familiar glint of humour that was so easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for. But John had a compass, and the needle never wavered.

“Just saying what a terrible roommate you are,” John said.

“Obviously,” Sherlock replied sarcastically, and John thought for a moment that Sherlock had heard his conversation and his heart jumped, and he wasn’t sure why. But there was no trace of it in the line of the boy’s shoulders as he moved across the room behind him to set his violin down and fiddle with an ongoing experiment, and John turned back to the laptop.

He and his family chatted for a little while longer, Sherlock interjecting a remark or two every so often, and then his mother said she had to go and prepare dinner and then it was just him and Harry. They said their goodbyes, not I love you, never that, although each knew the other did. But take care, talk to you later, help with the washing up, Harry, be good.

“Mum and Harry were very impressed with your violin,” John said, closing the laptop and handing it back to his friend, who had his face stuck to a microscope and waved a hand to communicate ‘just set it down somewhere, I’m busy’, while humming nonchalantly. But John knew he was pleased.

“They didn’t really expect it, to be honest,” he continued, sitting on his own desk and watching his roommate at work.

Sherlock adjusted the microscope slightly. “You hadn’t told them?”

John furrowed his brows, thinking. “I told them you were in the playing in the house ensemble, but I suppose I mustn’t have specified what.”

Sherlock didn’t respond for a few moments.

“What are you examining today, then?” John asked, seeing that that topic was going nowhere.

His roommate lifted his head and smiled. “Come and see.”

John felt his eyebrows rise – he was usually barred from getting involved, or interfering as Sherlock put it, with his friend’s experiments, but he crossed to him without a word. Sherlock pushed the instrument towards him a little, and John ducked his head and looked through the eyepiece.

“They’re just… cells,” John said, frowning at the lumpy structures.

Just cells?”

“You know what I mean,” John said. “Animal, obviously. Don’t tell me you skinned some poor rabbit.”

“They’re yours, actually,” Sherlock said.

John looked up.

“What?”

“Humans lose skin all the time, it’s nothing big. Did you know that every thirty minutes you lose – ”

“Did you swab me in my sleep?”

Sherlock didn’t answer, so John glared at him until he did, somewhat reluctantly.

“Cut off a hangnail.”

“While I was asleep?” John questioned incredulously, ready to slap his roommate. He ran a finger over his thumb and a dip in his skin next to his nail bed and cursed under his breath. “You weren’t exactly sparing about it! There’s a whole chunk missing!”

“And?” Sherlock retorted. “I did you a favour – it’s not irritating you anymore, is it? You kept fiddling with it yesterday and it was annoying me.”

“Annoying you? Jesus,” John breathed.

“Yes, small movement in the corner of my eye in biology, at lunch, in here – annoying!”

“Are we going to have to chat about boundaries again, Sherlock, because I’m getting kind of sick of having that conversation,” John warned.

“Would it make you feel better if I asked permission next time?”

“Next time?” John exclaimed. “There is not going to be a next time, I will sleep with a knife if I have to – and why were you examining my cells? They’re exactly the same as yours, there is literally nothing interesting about them!”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “I didn’t cut it off with the intention of examining them – a word usage I contest, by the way – ”

“Stop, you’re exhausting me,” John interrupted, scrubbing a hand over his face.

“I only – ”

“Stop!”

John turned away to begin changing out of his uniform, and so didn’t see the brief frown, the brief pursing of lips – the brief worry that passed over Sherlock’s face.

***

The first time Sherlock sneezed in John’s presence, it was a few days later, and it took both of them by surprise.

He was holding a ball of screwed-up pages from his Latin textbook in the blue flame of a Bunsen burner with a pair of forceps, watching the flame shift from colour to colour as different inks caught alight. John was sitting at his desk, reading over a poem barely visible within tangles of annotations, highlighter in hand. The only sounds were the rush of the flame and the crumpling of the paper as it burned.

Until Sherlock sneezed.

John paused, trying to place the high pitched sound that had just erupted behind him. He quickly eliminated the impossible, and turned around to face the improbable with a frown.

He was met with the sight of his roommate carefully holding the forceps and wearing an expression of mild astonishment. There was a long moment in which John nearly asked –

Did you just –

And Sherlock nearly answered –

I think I –

– but the taller boy merely sniffed and wiped at his nose delicately with two fingers, and John raised his eyebrows but nonetheless blessed his friend before turning back to his homework.

***

The next time was the day after, and John and Sherlock were sitting in biology. Luckily there had been a change in the seating plan (John wouldn’t have been surprised if Sherlock’s former lab partner, Robbie, had had something to do with it). With it, John had been saved the nascent awkwardness of having to sit next to Sarah after John’s dismal failure with regards to their relationship and had, instead, been paired with his roommate at the back of the classroom.

Doctor Hope had asked a question of the class and John could feel Sherlock’s annoyance at the answer being given radiating off him in waves increasing in size and strength. The girl answering was floundering, getting terminology mixed up, and John was certain he saw Sherlock twitch out of the corner of his eye at the use of a wrong polynucleotide.

Before John could hiss a warning at his friend, however, he interrupted the girl.

“Christ, how old are you? Because if you’d actually left primary school you would know that – ”

And then sneezed.

Silence fell. All the heads in the room turned to stare at Sherlock, who clamped a hand over his nose and mouth.

Doctor Hope, after a moment, cleared his throat. “Bless you, Holmes.”

Sherlock glowered at him, and waited for the man to start speaking again and the class to turn away before dropping his façade and turned to John.

“Do you, um,” he began, voice low. “Do you have a tissue?”

***

After that, the sneezes became more and more frequent, until they reached their zenith with a full-blown sneezing fit at breakfast the next day.

“John, I’m dying,” Sherlock moaned thickly when he could speak again.

John smiled into his orange juice. “It’s just that cold that’s going around, Sherlock.”

“But I never get colds,” his friend complained. “What have I done to deserve this?”

“How much time do you have?” John teased, but Sherlock ignored him, suddenly raising his hands to his face and sitting up very straight. John pressed a napkin into his friend’s palm, recognising the seismic tremors of a snotty volcano. After a suspenseful moment, however, Sherlock drooped again, throwing the napkin down. He picked up his fork and went to prod at a sausage, but seemed to reconsider, and with an “Ugh,” he put the cutlery down and pushed his plate away from him.

“Hey, none of that,” John chastised. “How are you supposed to beat this deadly virus if you don’t give yourself the energy?”

“I appreciate the concern, John,” Sherlock said, and John got the feeling he didn’t appreciate it at all. “But you are neither my doctor nor my mother, so you need not fuss like you are.”

John snorted. “I’m as good as.”

“Which one?”

“Both,” John said, spreading some butter onto a piece of toast and offering it to his friend.

***

“Holmes, do you need to be excused?”

Sherlock tried to answer, the rest of his chemistry class either glaring at him or obviously not doing so, but as soon as he opened his mouth he was interrupted by another sneeze. This was getting tedious; the skin around his nose was beginning to hurt from rubbing at it so much and it seemed the cold had curled itself around his head and turned his brain into much the same substance that was insisting on streaming from his nostrils.

“Why don’t you go back to house,” his teacher said, feigning kindness in place of the irritation Sherlock could see in the way she was holding her head. He considered his options. Sit there with the idiots who were still getting atomic and mass numbers confused or take refuge in the cool silence of his room.

He chose the latter, still sneezing as he walked out of the door.

The roads back to Doyle were empty save a few gardeners and teachers with a free period – and as he scanned each face, he realised he was looking for something, someone.

No Victor, no Victor, no Victor, like a machine printing out a ream of data, repeating with each person he passed. He knew it was illogical to think that the man could somehow have escaped from custody, prison, wherever on Earth he was, but he wasn’t thinking it. It was just there, a concept unbidden. His brain, supererogatory.

There were two types of fears, Sherlock knew. Rational and irrational. Heights, fire, snakes; rational. Base, animal, instinctive. His father, John leaving, Victor returning; irrational. Concocted, illogical, imagined – yet somehow accepted and ingrained and buried, the damp that spread over the corners of Sherlock’s walls. Viral.

The house was quiet. John was currently in the middle of an English lesson. A few others had free periods, but they were likely clustered together in places Sherlock was not likely to visit.

On entering his room, Sherlock was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to lie down. All rational thought had been trapped in the goo in his head and all that was left was an aching exhaustion, pumped through his veins to his extremities.

He kicked off his shoes and removed his blazer, loosening his tie. He hated ties. Clambered onto his bed. Just to close his eyes. Just for a moment, just to rest.

***

“I mean, it was clearly a metaphor, he wasn’t actually dead,” Mike was saying as they walked through Doyle after their English lesson, but John’s mind was elsewhere. He usually received a couple of texts from Sherlock during each period, regardless of whether Sherlock himself was in a class or not, generally something along the lines of

Sherlock:BORED

but throughout the previous hour, John’s phone had lain still against his thigh.

“You agree with me, right?” Mike said, snapping John out of his head.

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” John replied, not really agreeing at all. “How could he not have meant it as a metaphor?”

“Exactly! She doesn’t know what she’s on about, can’t teach to save her life,” the other boy grumbled, slowing down as they reached room nineteen. “Anyway, I’ll see you later, John,”

“Yeah, bye, Mike,” John replied, continuing down the lower sixth corridor to room twenty-one.

He pushed open the door, hearing the familiar squeak of the hinges, and his heart sank. The room was empty.

He crossed the floor, picking up Sherlock’s shoes and blazer along the way, draping the latter over the back of Sherlock’s chair. His friend had been in the room recently then – but he’d had a lesson... Was it anthropology or chemistry? He couldn’t remember. He wondered what Sherlock had gotten himself into to make him abandon various items of clothing and then take off like –

He had straightened up from stowing Sherlock’s shoes under his friend’s desk and been presented with a pair of feet directly in front of his face.

Sherlock was lying on his bed, curled on his side, asleep. His mouth was open slightly and his skin was paler than usual, his nose pink. John was so unused to seeing Sherlock in his bed that he hadn’t bothered to look there upon entering.

John could feel a small smile growing as he looked at the sleeping form before him. With Sherlock there was no stopping distance; when he applied the brakes, he applied them hard, and everything simply ceased. The world went quiet. Still. Eerily silent, like the eye of a storm.

“Sherlock,” John called softly. “It’s time for lunch, wake up.”

Sherlock snuffled but otherwise didn’t stir. “Sherlock,” John tried, a little louder. “Wake up, now.”

There was no reaction, so John tried a few more times, before Sherlock shifted and mumbled something, before groggily blinking open his eyes.

“Was I sleeping?”

John grinned. “Like a log.”

Sherlock groaned. “Don’t make me go to lunch,” he pleaded, practically burrowing back into the mattress.

“You know as well as I do, Mr Logical, that your body needs food for you to get better,” John reasoned, but Sherlock groaned again, more helplessly this time. John was not unaware that Sherlock may well have been playing him, so he reached over the metal frame of the bed and rested his hand against Sherlock’s forehead. He was burning – not a word John ever would have associated with that frost-pale skin, but burning nonetheless.

“I feel like death warmed up,” he mumbled, and John could see his eyelids were already drooping again.

“Okay,” John conceded, softening his voice. “I’ll go to lunch and bring you something back, okay?”

Sherlock began to protest, but John shushed him. “You don’t get a say in the matter. See you in a bit.”

He stepped away from the bed and went to leave the room, but turned back. “At least take your tie off and get under the covers, yeah?”

His friend mumbled something in reply and John slipped out, closing the door gently behind him.

***

Sherlock was walking across a great field. The sea of grass stretched as far as he could see, empty as a promise, and he was barefoot, the short blades tickling the soles of his feet as he went.

It was night; the moon was full and close, he could see streaks and mottled patches of grey on its surface. It lit, with its fraudulent light, the field, like a floodlight, throwing everything into sharp contrast.

“Sherlock.”

He turned around. John was standing behind him, rugby ball under one arm and his first team uniform dirtied with the same mud that was smudged just below his left eye. He was so serious, the line of his mouth like it had been sketched in one fell swoop – or was that the wrong expression?

Sherlock reached up and tried to wipe away the mud, but his thumb came away clean.

Those blue eyes, bluer than usual under the stolen light, watched him so solemnly, and, yea, he felt he was swimming in still waters – but that was wrong, too. Surely.

Never mind; it didn’t matter – John’s face split into a wide grin and all gravity was lost. “Watch.”

Sherlock took a step back as John held the rugby ball in front of him, poising to kick, aiming for the posts, H-shaped. H for Holmes, for home, for happy, for hungry, for him, for J H Watson.

Him? Him who?

John wound up, the ball slipped from his fingers, fell, beginning to tumble, before John’s foot, pointed like a ballerina, all grace and power, collided with it and sent it spinning into space.

Sherlock watched as the ball flew on wings unseen toward the H.

One should never drop those, keep them close, aside from when pronouncing their name. Then they are scattered with abandon.

John stood next to him, watching also. Sherlock could smell him, but not see him, fixated on the ball as he was. He smelt of water and tomatoes. Herbs and yeast. And warmth. Funny, how one could smell warm.

For a split second – into electrons, into protons, neutrons, into empty space (no, not right, something off) – the ball seemed to pause between the arms of the H, raised skyward in praise, before it fell away behind it.

There was something Sherlock wanted to say to John, wanted to clarify. It was pressing at the base of his skull but its blade was blunt and he couldn’t remember its form.

“Sherlock.”

Sherlock turned and looked at John. Something, something to say. Sherlock frowned, and John cocked his head, as if asking, what is it?

I don’t know, John, he wanted to say. I can’t remember. But his mouth wouldn’t open, and John didn’t even care anymore, he was back to gazing at him sombrely, and there was nothing Sherlock could do but look back.

“Sherlock.” John repeated. “Wake up.”

***

Sherlock took a deep breath, surfacing, and slowly opened his eyes.

John had gone to lunch with some assorted Doyle sixth formers. He had joined the queue as usual, a paper cup, a plate and cutlery on his tray, as usual. A few slices of bread, a baguette filled with something – had hadn’t bothered to look before picking it off a shelf. In transition from the serving area to the tables, the bread had migrated into his pockets.

He had made short work of the baguette, hardly noticing how it tasted. He had let the others talk around him, making comments only when necessary. As soon as he thought appropriate, he had excused himself and slipped away. Disposed of his tray – but not the cup. That he held as inconspicuously as he could and annoyed a few people by pushing his way back against the flow into the serving area. As quickly as he could, and it was not quick enough, he had filled the cup with soup, and it was almost too hot to hold, but he ignored that fact and, careful not to spill anything, had weaved his way through the throng and out of the dining hall.

When he had returned to room twenty one, Sherlock was still asleep, still curled like a child. His tie was wrapped around a bedpost, but he was still atop the duvet. John sighed.

Now he was sitting on the end of Sherlock’s bed, soup in one hand and bread in the other.

“John?” he mumbled.

“Right here,” John assured him, and Sherlock began to sit up. “Brought you sustenance. Tomato soup, some bread too.”

Sherlock looked at him, and John couldn’t read his expression under all of that fatigue. “Tomato and basil,” he corrected after a moment, and took the cup and bread John held out to him.

“What lessons are you supposed to have after lunch?”

“Only Latin, sixth,” Sherlock replied, dipping his bread almost daintily in the soup.

“Okay,” John said, thinking. “Okay. I’ve got chemistry and then a free, but I’m due in the san for two hours, so you can skive off Latin and come to the san with me sixth period.”

Sherlock frowned. “Why?”

“Why?” John repeated. “So I can take care of you and not get a detention at the same time.”

“I don’t need – ” Sherlock began, but suddenly sneezed, slopping soup onto his trousers.

“Taking care of?” John finished. “I think you just proved yourself wrong there.”

“Piss off,” Sherlock mumbled half-heartedly around a mouthful of bread.

***

Sherlock:I keep shivering, but I am too hot to get into bed. This is highly unpleasant.

Sherlock:John?

Sherlock:Why did people keep staring at me when I sneezed? Had they never seen a person sneeze before?

John:I’m going to get my phone confiscated if you keep texting me

John:There are only 12 people in my class, it’s hard not to notice when one of them’s texting under the table

Sherlock:So don't reply.

John:Youll still keep texting tho, wont u

Sherlock:Tell your grammar to have a nice trip.

John:Im going for spped not accuracy here

Sherlock:The two are not mutually exclusive…

John:They r 4 me

Sherlock:You sound like a twelve year old with a Myspace account in 2006.

John:U kno about myspace??

Sherlock:Had an account. For an experiment.

John:Yeah sure, an "experiment"

Sherlock:Helped me catch the cat-killer of the next village. It was very useful.

John:Whatever u say

John:Anyway, everyone only stared because sneezing is… a normal thing

Sherlock:And I am…?

John:I didn’t mean normal, I meant ordinary.

Sherlock:How was Malaga?

John:???

Sherlock:I’m asking your grammar. It seems to have come back from its holiday.

John:Y malaga

Sherlock:Oh, nope, it’s gone again. Costa del Sol this time.

Sherlock:Buen viaje.

Sherlock:John?

Sherlock:Have I somehow offended you?

Sherlock:Would Barcelona have been better?

John:No you wally, I was working. You know, because I’m in a chemistry lesson?

Sherlock:Boring.

John:Ten minutes til the end, Sherlock, hang in there

Sherlock:If you send me the picture of that cat on the washing line…

***

As John walked down the lower sixth corridor after his lesson, a great cacophony of sneezes could be heard from room twenty one.

He threw open the door onto a sniffling Sherlock who was sitting miserably on his bed, back against the wall.

“Come on, then, sick one; let’s go.”

***

As John approached the san, a memory surfaced; a memory that felt like it was from eons ago.

“I don’t like it there.”

“Why? They just want to help you.”

“Let me rephrase that; they don’t like me there.”

John swallowed and glanced at his friend, walking beside him.

“He didn’t get any visitors apart from me, Molly and Lestrade.”

“Sherlock?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you okay? With this, I mean.”

Sherlock took his eyes off the horizon. “This?”

“Yeah,” John said. Seeing Sherlock was about to chastise him for his lack of precision, he clarified. “The san.”

His friend narrowed his eyes, then turned back to the road in front of him, expression clear. “Of course,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

John opened his mouth to say you know perfectly well, stop avoiding the subject, we both know that you know and we both know that I know so why don’t you just –

But didn’t. You hypocrite, John. Don’t avoid the subject. But he had suddenly forgotten how to string the necessary words together, into a necklace, a choker, a noose.

“Yeah, well,” was all he could produce. “Not happy memories here.”

Sherlock seemed to consider this. “Those can easily be written over,” he said finally, as they climbed the short flight of steps to the door.

John shook his head to himself. To Sherlock. At Sherlock. Either or. Both.

The san smelt, as always, of lemon and old wood. Two pairs of shoes squeaked on the polished floor, and the middle aged man sitting at the desk at the end of the corridor where it turned left looked up.

“Ah, John,” he began, getting up. “Thank you for coming on such short notice, my brat of a nephew changed his plans last-minute and my sister’s at work, thinks the whole world revolves around him…”

As he rambled on sourly, Dr Smith rounded the desk and John followed him into the waiting area, Sherlock behind. The man reached through the doorway of the small office and retrieved a coat.

“Who’s this?”

“Oh, this is my – ” best “ – friend Sherlock, he’s come to give me a hand,” John lied.

Smith regarded the taller boy for a moment. “It’s not strictly in accordance with the rules, you know that.”

“I know, sir, but I thought – ” John began.

“But I have to go and I don’t have the energy to send him away, so as long as he doesn’t cock things up, he’s welcome – just for today, you understand,” he said, shrugging on his coat and pushing past the two boys.

“Got it,” John said. “Bye,” he called as Smith rounded the corner out of the waiting area and into the corridor again.

He got no reply, and as soon as they heard the door swing shut, Sherlock said, “What a rude man.”

John laughed. “You’re right there. So, I have to man the desk but Wednesday afternoons are usually pretty quiet so we can chill for a bit.” John went into the office and hung up his blazer, loosening his tie. He brought out his identification badge from a drawer and hung it around his neck. “As long as one of the nurses – or, god forbid, the actual doctor – doesn’t catch us blatantly not doing anything, we’ll be fine.”

“What a professional environm–” Sherlock began, but was interrupted by an almighty sneeze.

John laughed and clapped his friend on his back.

***

John had sent Sherlock to the ward, the term used to describe a dusty room lined with hospital beds where the nurses put students too sick to go to their lessons. Sherlock remembered it well.

He remembered the way his senses had gradually returned to normal as he lay on those scratchy bed sheets, and the way the door complained whenever someone pushed it open. He remembered how the nurses would try to put a screen around his bed whenever another student entered the ward, and how he had kicked up an almighty fuss and had refused to eat until they had given up, so he could deduce someone new, anyone different at all to the few people who bustled in and out of his life all too often over that period.

“You don’t have the technology here to feed me intravenously,” he had spat. “What are you going to do?”

“Bored,” he declared now, making sure John could hear him from the waiting room, where Sherlock could just see him arranging some leaflets about chlamydia.

John ignored him. Sherlock huffed and sat up. His head still felt like it was full of mud and his temperature was approximately point seven degrees above optimum.

“Bored, John,” he repeated, louder this time.

“Go to sleep,” John replied. “That’s the only thing that will get you better quicker.”

“I’m not tired,” Sherlock lied.

“Great joke,” John said sarcastically, and Sherlock huffed again, throwing himself back onto the bed. He curled on his side, watching John bustle about in the waiting area. He was rearranging a pin board full of posters, and Sherlock could feel himself falling asleep.

He usually felt himself falling asleep. Usually ticked off the symptoms in his head. When he didn’t, he was startled and unnerved when he woke up. Grumpy, John would have said. It was more about the lack of control than anything else. His body was something to be mastered, or at least monitored.

He had done it ever since he was six, maybe six and a half, when he had read a book about sleep disorders because Mycroft had left it lying around. He counted his pulse, as it dropped. He counted his breaths, as they softened. He tried to identify when he slipped from alpha to theta, but had only succeeded once. That time, he remembered, he had been fifteen and falling from a high like a skyscraper, and he had been concentrating so hard on feeling his sleep cycles that he had slid into a lucid dream without realising. The dream itself had been boring, quotidian – he had been arguing with his brother, and his mother had told him off. He had sought Redbeard out, but of course, he was nowhere to be found. He only existed in Sherlock’s mind palace, waiting for him on the hearth rug.

The door to the san. Opening. A person wearing heeled shoes walking down the corridor. She had a long stride, graceful. She and John exchanged a few sentences, and Sherlock could hear something in John’s voice, a friendliness, a joviality not entirely appropriate.

“Jeanette,” he was saying. “What a pretty name.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. An acute irritation was rapidly growing somewhere, as the girl’s laughter grated against his skin. He and turned over and tried to fall back into a doze, but it was futile.

He wasn’t tired anymore. In fact, he was rather hungry. Yes; and thirsty as well.

He swung his legs off the bad and stood up, ignoring the blood rushing too fast away from his head and refusing to wobble as he walked out of the room.

John was sitting next to the girl on one of the pews, and she was laughing at something he’d said, a hand resting lightly on his arm, as if her laughter was so earth-shattering she had to steady herself. She was pretty, hair done up in a high bun, tall. Taller than John, but then again, all the girls John had shown in interest in were.

She was in the year above – prefect badge; books next to her indicate she’d just come from an economics lesson – no, library; she had just picked up a book, reserved for her judging by the post-it stuck to the front cover of the one her pencil case sat atop, her name and house scribbled in a middle-aged woman’s writing. So; she had been studying in the library. Doing economics homework. When she had begun to feel ill? No, she didn’t look as if she felt under the weather – she was practically radiant with energy, feigned a little for John’s benefit; her eyes kept darting to his lips and neck, his thigh, close to hers, the creases in his trousers where they bunched at the knees and crotch. No, she wasn’t ill. Sherlock’s eye was caught by the clock behind them; half past. On the dot. A very specific time. Chances are she’s here by appointment, then. She shifted slightly where she sat and Sherlock’s eye was caught by the way she gingerly rested her right foot on the floor – instead of flat, as her left was, her toes were raised slightly. Problem with a tendon. Calves of a runner, and there had been a charity marathon through the village the weekend just past, and she had not yet been given any tape for her injury, so this is likely her –

“First physio appointment,”

John looked up to where Sherlock was standing in the doorway, his eyes flicked back to Jeanette briefly, and was there a tiny flicker of - ? No; only a little surprise, and a generous helping of nice to see you up and about, Sherlock, his familiar smile.

“Hey, Sherlock,” he said, and stood up, Jeanette’s hand falling away from his arm. Sherlock saw irritation there, on her features, and repressed a smug smirk. “What’s up?”

“Hungry,” Sherlock replied shortly.

John raised his eyebrows. “Well, look at you, eating more than once a day.”

“A car can’t run without petrol.”

John shook his head and made to sit back down. “There’s a kitchen down the corridor, first on your right.”

Sherlock groaned. “Can’t you do it for me?” he whined, knowing the petulance in his tone would irritate John but I’ll apologise later, go to dinner.

“No, do it yourself,” John dismissed.

“Alright,” Sherlock conceded. “If you’re fine with me getting my cold germs all over the kitchen…”

John gave a despairing look to Jeannette, and a memory hit him, the same expression on his father’s face when he fell over at some important ceremony and started crying, and his father making that face at a diplomat, so sorry about my son, aren’t children bothersome

“Jeanette?”

Sherlock whipped around. A man – doctor, eager to retire, smoker, two dogs, no kids – stood in the corridor that led off to the consultation rooms and, apparently, kitchen.

Jeanette stood, scooping up her books. “See you later, John,” she said, voice low and ambiguous – see you later, see you later, see y’ later?

She gave Sherlock a tight smile as she walked past him and disappeared with the doctor.

Two pairs of eyes watched her go, and then John sighed, turning to Sherlock.

“I’ll make you something, come on,” he said, getting up.

“Actually, I’m okay,” Sherlock said. He saw John’s forehead furrow and mouth open in the beginning of a protest, and turned on his heels and strode back into the ward. He could sleep now, he told himself. Now the girl was gone, he could sleep.

***

John walked back from the kitchen, a glass of probably out of date squash in his hand. He poked his head around the door of the ward.

Sherlock was curled up, his back to the door. John walked quietly into the room and peered at Sherlock’s face. His eyes were shut tight, his untidy curls thrown across the pillow. John smiled.

His friend still had his shoes on, so John set his glass down on the bed side table and began to unlace them. He pulled them slowly off the other boy’s feet and set them neatly by the bed. He pulled the duvet folded neatly at the end of the bed over the sleeping body, and was tempted to lie down on the bed opposite and take a moment to rest, but he could hear someone opening the door to the building.

He left his drink where it was and closed the door quietly on his way out, and saw a small boy clutching a metal crutch standing by the reception desk.

“Hi,” John began. “Can I help you?”

The boy, really extraordinarily tiny, with dark hair and eyes like pools of black light, turned to him. “I’m here for a physiotherapy appointment.”

“Aha,” John said, moving behind the desk and wiggling the mouse to wake the computer up. “What’s your name?”

“Richie,” the boy said, in a soft voice with a barely-detectable sing-song accent of some kind. “Richie Brook.”

John watched the boy out of the corner of his eye as he entered him on the database. He had both hands resting on the desktop, which was about chest height for him. The sleeves of his blazer, even with his hands raised, brushed the first knuckles of his thumbs. He turned his head and suddenly John thought he’d seen him before, but couldn’t put his finger on where. It was like he was a ghost, a face glimpsed in a crowd while looking for someone else, a broken chord of a song heard through a wall.

John pressed the enter key, but the computer turned up a blank page and an error message.

“I can’t seem to find you, Richie,” he said. “Which house are you in?”

“I’m not yet,” the boy replied. “I’m in the lower school, year eight.”

“That’s what I assumed by the tie, but I just wanted to double-check,” John said, backspacing and staring at the blinking cursor. “I’ve only been here a couple of months, so I still forget which is which sometimes,” he smiled, in what he hoped was a reassuring manner – the boy’s eyes never seemed to settle, jumping around the room.

“So am I,” Richie said. “My uncle is a new teacher. We moved up here from London at the beginning of summer.”

John barely heard this, as he suddenly realised what he’d done wrong. He made a tsk-ing sound at himself. Idiot. He typed the boy’s name in again, pressed enter. “There you are,” he said triumphantly. “Richard Brook, twelve years old, been in twice before.”

The boy nodded silently. “I hate being called Richard,” he said tremulously.

John logged his entry time and the reason for his visit and told him to wait on one of the pews. He watched him hobble over, one leg stiff, the sound his crutch made on the floor making John’s left leg ache. He sat as if someone was pushing on his shoulders, folded in on himself, hands clasped in his lap. John found himself wanting to sit down next to him and rub his back, like one would stroke a frightened pet.

Instead of doing that, he walked over to the door to the ward and put his head through. Sherlock was in the same position he’d left him in, and John watched his chest rise and fall a few times before retreating.

When he turned back into the waiting area, the boy was looking up at him with those deep, solemn eyes, unblinking.

John smiled and gave into the temptation and sat beside him, the pew creaking in the dusty silence.

“My friend’s asleep in there,” he explained. “He’s a bit under the weather.”

Richie only nodded to show that he’d heard, but ventured nothing in reply.

“So you lived in London?”

He nodded again.

“That’s where I’m from. Did you like it, or do you prefer it up here in the country?”

“It’s boring up here.”

John laughed, partially out of surprise that the boy had said anything at all. “I said that when I first came here. But Sherlock – my friend, the one who’s asleep – said to me ‘don’t be daft, John; the country is not immune to dark intrigues.’ Dark intrigues, who says that?” He laughed again, remembering. It had been the night before the Turner case had erupted, and they had been brushing their teeth, and John had laughed into his toothpaste. He remembered Sherlock’s face, mildly annoyed but also a little surprised, for whatever reason. “He’s a bit melodramatic.”

There was silence for a few moments.

“But you’re not from London originally, right?” John asked, trying to keep the conversation going.

Richie shook his head. “Ireland. But we’d lived in London since I was about eight.”

“By ‘we’ you mean you and your uncle?”

The boy nodded.

“So you live with him?”

Nod.

“What does he teach?”

“Maths.”

“I do maths,” John said. “But I’ve never heard of a Mr Brook.”

“He’s got my mother’s maiden name. Moriarty.”

John stifled a laugh. So the clueless man who had let Muhammad leave his lesson and never come back was this tiny boy’s uncle. Small world. Small school. “Oh, I’ve heard that name. Doesn’t teach me, though,” was what he said.

He wanted to ask Richie why he lived with his uncle and not his parents, but didn’t feel the boy would be comfortable with it, so he steered the conversation back into safer waters. They (John) talked about the reason for Richie’s physiotherapy (rugby injury – unsurprising, seeing as the boy looked as if he would be blown away in a brisk wind) until Richie was called in by the doctor. John waved goodbye to him, and thought that the boy walked a little taller when he got up. But he put it down to wishful thinking.

He checked his watch: just under five minutes until he could leave.

He went to wake up Sherlock.

***

Sherlock was walking with John down the road to the shorter boy’s house. It was mid-afternoon, the sun glaring down at them from behind a thin veil of clouds. They were both in school uniform, but they had tied their ties around their ankles, linking John’s left to Sherlock’s right like they were running a three legged race.

They walked. Straight down the middle of the road. There were no cars in sight, and none could be heard. The roar of the city was silent, dormant.

“You know your mother’s not dead, right?”

“Yes, she is.”

John made a face at him. “No, she isn’t,” he said slowly, like Sherlock was a toddler. “She’s marrying Irene, how can she be dead?”

“Quite easily,” Sherlock said, though he wasn’t so sure.

John made a frustrated noise, and they both fell silent.

There it was again, that pressing need to inform John of something. It was important, but it was just out of his reach. He tried to jump to pluck it out of the air, but it was out of his reach – his fingers only scraped it, and they came away grazed, blood rising but not quite bleeding.

He felt a hand catch his and hold it up. He looked at John, who had his eyebrows raised. “There,” the shorter boy said. “Now we match.”

Sherlock was about to ask what he meant when John held up his other hand.

“Where are your nails?” Sherlock asked, and he felt like that same hand was squeezing his throat.

“You pulled them off, remember?” John said.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Don’t lie to me!” John shouted, and Sherlock flinched. “You did, you did, you did!”

“John, please – ” Sherlock said, feeling his eyes prickle and blur. He had no idea why John was so upset, nor why he himself was either, but John stopped walking and bent down. “What are you doing?”

John didn’t reply, and Sherlock crouched as well to see what he was doing, and John was fumbling with the ties, the blood from his raw nailbeds smudging on the maroon fabric.

“No, John – ” Sherlock choked out. “I didn’t pull off your nails, that wasn’t me."

“You’re a liar,” John said through gritted teeth, and he’d worked one knot loose and was throwing the tie onto the ground.

“I didn’t! I don’t know who did that, but we’ll find out. I’ll find out. John?” Sherlock noted the rising panic in his own voice at the silence of John’s, and gripped the other boy by the shoulders. “Don’t – please, don’t – John, I only cut off a hang nail, I didn’t pull the entire nail off – don’t you remember?”

“No, I don’t,” John said shortly.

“You must remember – think, John! I cut off a hang nail because you were asleep and I wanted to – ”

I wanted to –

Something to tell him –

I wanted to –

To tell him, I wanted to –

“Oh! I wanted to see how deeply asleep you were!” Sherlock shook his friend, but John ignored him. “Listen, John, this is important! I need to tell you this! You hadn’t had a nightmare in a week and I wanted to see – you usually have them at that time and if you didn’t wake up – that amount of pain – I wasn’t sparing, remember? On purpose, I hurt you on purpose, though you didn’t feel – you would have woken up had you not been so deeply asleep – don’t you understand?”

John’s hands stilled.

“You weren’t even approaching the right sleep cycle for nightmares – don’t you see, John? You’re getting better!”

John looked at him, and suddenly the world tilted and John’s face was on its side and Sherlock’s head swam, yea, did it swim.

“Getting better from what?”

Sherlock blinked. He was underneath something soft, a duvet, his shoes had been removed.

“It doesn’t matter,” John said, straightening up. “I think I interrupted a dream,” he smiled.

He took a step back and sat on the bed opposite Sherlock and took out his phone.

Sherlock stared at the battered object, at the thumb that ran over the chip in the casing next to the headphone jack. At the nail.

Chapter Text

John had stepped out of the door of Doyle that morning to find a thick coat of frost muting the colours thrown onto the hard earth by the sunrise, the only vividity being the blazing red horizon, smudging up into pinks and purples that tainted Sherlock’s pale cheeks rosy as he joined him.

It was the last lesson of a particularly boring Thursday, and John sat in the kind of classroom that would echo if it had no-one in it to soak up sound. The nights had drawn in so much that it was beginning to be claustrophobic. The sun had set as he had walked to maths, and now his teacher got up from her desk to draw the blinds against the darkness that was pressing insistently against the glass.

A storm was moving in from the North Sea, he’d heard it on the news that morning. Sherlock had been with him, and John swore to Mike later that his roommate’s eyes had lit up. Sherlock would be the type to be excited by such news, and John wondered if he was sitting in his anthropology lesson listening intently to the wind that was just beginning to pick up outside.

As if on cue, John felt his phone vibrate against his thigh.

Sherlock:Moving from four to five on the Beaufort…

John:Excited?

Sherlock:Don’t be ridiculous.

“John?”

John looked up, and the rest of the class did so with him. His teacher was looking at him.

“Are you on your phone?”

John locked the device and pressed it between his legs, putting his hands above the table. “No, miss.”

“Because if you are, you know the policy,” she continued.

“I’m not, miss,” he repeated.

“You were smiling at your crotch.” She reasoned, and John heard a few titters of laughter. “Hand it over.”

“I wasn’t on my phone, miss,” he insisted again, holding up his empty hands for emphasis.

She wasn’t convinced. She got up and walked towards him, almost leisurely, and if Sherlock were here he’d tell me all about her power complex stemming from childhood abandonment issues, say something smart and get us both detention but it wouldn’t matter, but he wasn’t. There was only John and his teacher, her long skirt swishing as she ambled between the desks towards him, the heads of his classmates turning and following her with their gaze as she went.

She came to a stop next to him. John looked up at her, watching her peer at his lap. He met her gaze, knowing (hoping) she wouldn't see the phone sandwiched between his thighs. There was a moment of silence, and then John saw her smirk.

“John, would you like to stand up for me?”

“I’m quite comfy here, actually,” he said, and he again heard laughter, but this time in his favour, giving him the courage to feign nonchalance. “Thanks, though.”

She folded her arms and opened her mouth but before she could say anything more, there was a knock at the door. It was pushed open by someone who could only have been Richie Brook’s uncle.

“Sorry to disturb, Mrs Bramham, but could I have a word?” he asked, in the same soft voice his nephew had, but with a stronger, more recognisable accent.

John’s teacher looked a little put out to be interrupted at the climax of her interrogation, but she couldn’t refuse. She gave one last look to John, who returned it as defiantly as he dared, told the class to keep quiet, and slipped out of the door.

As soon as she’d gone, John slumped and breathed out a long breath of relief, stowing his phone in his blazer pocket.

“Saved by the bell, eh?” Mike whispered loudly from across the classroom. “Who was it?”

“Who was who?” John asked.

“The person you nearly sacrificed your phone and/or dignity for,” Mike clarified, and John was suddenly aware that although other conversations had broken out, people were listening to his and Mike’s.

“Jeannette,” he said.

What?

“Ooh,” Mike cooed, raising his eyebrows. “Are we expecting a happy announcement?”

John laughed uneasily. Jeannette? What the fuck? “We’ll see.”

He hadn’t meant to say Jeannette. He had opened his mouth with the intention of telling the truth with a long-suffering expression – I know, wasn’t worth it, don’t know why I bother really – but the name that had tumbled out had not been the one he was expecting, and now the deed was done, irredactable.

***

As soon as the bell rang at the end of the lesson, John was on his feet and out the door before his teacher could bring up his digression. Luckily she seemed to have forgotten about it after her conversation with Moriarty, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

The narrow corridor outside was packed with people, and John had to push his way through. The frigid air hitting him as he stepped out into the falling night was a welcome relief from the stuffy stagnancy inside, but quickly turned unpleasant as his skin temperature plummeted. The babble of voices echoed off the stone walls of the buildings in the small courtyard, high laughter and rapid chatter lifting John’s spirits a little after a long and tiring day.

He was eager to get back to house – the dress rehearsal for the house singing competition was that night, and John was beginning to feel the atmosphere ratchet up a couple of notches as the big day itself approached.

John passed through an archway into the quadrangle, and braced himself against the biting wind that felt like sandpaper on his exposed neck and face. The floods of students pouring out from their classrooms gave no protection from the elements, and John was struck by the rather bizarre desire to be a penguin.

That thought kept him occupied until he reached the intersection of the paths at the centre of the quad, at which time the crowd parted as students changed direction, and caught sight of a familiar gangly form, hair being tousled by the wind. John half-jogged to catch up.

“We’ll be at a seven within the next six minutes,” Sherlock said by way of greeting once John had levelled with him.

“Not a good thing, Sherlock,” John replied. “How was anthropology? Oh, wait, don’t tell me – boring?”

Sherlock smiled. “Unbearably.”

“I nearly got my phone confiscated in maths just now because of you.”

“It had nothing to do with me, you're just bad at being indiscreet,” Sherlock retorted.

“I wouldn’t have to be indiscreet if you didn’t text me and then get pissed off if I didn’t reply within three seconds,” John replied. Sherlock only raised his eyebrows, so the shorter boy tried to get the seriousness of the situation across. “You know she reads out your texts if she confiscates your phone.”

“Oh, how terrible,” Sherlock said, rolling his eyes. “Your entire maths class would know of our illicit arguments about the weather.”

John sighed. “I know it’s not like we were, I don’t know, writing each other poetry or anything, but still.”

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

“Thou art even more underwhelming,” John finished.

***

There was a crush of boys all returning from their lessons trying to enter Doyle at the same time, and John was patiently waiting for there to be sufficient space for him to squeeze through, but Sherlock seemed to have other ideas. He grabbed John’s forearm and dragged him through the door, shoving people out of the way as he went.

“Sherlock!” John protested, but his friend paid no heed. John muttered apologies to the people he was barging through by proxy, Sherlock’s grip on his arm unyielding. John was always surprised when Sherlock touched him, simply because the tall boy was such a self-contained entity. The only times John had seen him initiate any physical contact with other people were with the purpose of manipulation. Technically, every time Sherlock tugged John by the arm, John was being manipulated as well. But somehow it didn’t feel the same.

Lestrade was standing on the bottom step in the foyer. “Dress rehearsal in the assembly hall in fifteen, boys, don’t forget.”

Sherlock huffed. “As if we could,” he muttered to John as the two began climbing the stairs.

Sherlock had a point. Since the beginning of the week, the house singing competition had been the only topic of conversation on anyone’s lips. John had not expected there to be such a level of excitement surrounding the event. He had had inter-house competitions at his old school, but there had been nowhere near Bart’s level of house-pride. He supposed it made sense, however – John had grown so used to Doyle he now had to adjust to being at home when he went, not at the other way around. Not one that held the energy of hundreds of boys, current, old, dead, in its walls. So it was easy to see why his peers were so territorial about the entire affair.

“So, how’re you feeling about tomorrow?” John asked.

“What’s going on tomorrow?”

“Stop talking out your arse, Sherlock,” John replied. Then, when Sherlock didn’t react, “Nervous?”

His friend didn’t so much as look at him, so John was about to change the subject when Sherlock replied.

“I’m not thinking about it.”

John hummed. It was rare that Sherlock said something he actually meant, and comments like that were often the tip of the proverbial iceberg – a metaphor John thought particularly suited to his arctic roommate. John had voiced this thought to Sherlock once, and he had responded, “You should meet my brother.” John had argued that he had, and they had bickered before forgetting the conversation entirely. Or pretending to. As was their way.

I’m not thinking about it. It was said airily enough, but it was not meant in the way it was said. No, John corrected himself. It was said in the way it did not mean.

“You’re going to be fine,” John said. “More than fine, you’re going to be amazing.”

“Obviously,” Sherlock replied, his tone and face inscrutable.

***

The moment John stepped into the assembly hall, saw all of those empty seats, saw the stage, he felt the first flutter of nerves in his belly.

A man in black khaki trousers was standing on the stage, and others dressed in the same way were tinkering with the platform. Lestrade gathered the house into some sort of clump in front of him.

“As you will all have noticed, we’ve only just finished extending the stage,” the khaki man explained, raising his voice over that of the wind outside. “The wings aren’t up yet, and we haven’t got any of the instruments wired up or anything, but everything will be finished for tomorrow night. Now, do you guys have any special requests – dry ice, maybe?”

***

John’s alarm was defunct the next morning, as the sound of Sherlock’s violin woke him up well before it was due to go off.

He was standing in front of the window, curtains wide open onto the pre-dawn inky blue sky, in a dressing gown. He had his violin tucked under his chin, and seemed to be playing random notes, a few chords, sometimes just plucking at the strings.

“Morning,” John mumbled, sitting up. “Did you sleep?”

“See, there – not how did you sleep, just did you, SherlockDid you, at all?” Sherlock said quickly, as if continuing a conversation only he had been privy to.

John frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re different, John. Why are you like that? To me? Why do you never ask about my family, or how I slept, or – ”

“You never ask me about those things either,” John interrupted. “Why don’t you?”

“Because I’m a sociopath, John,” Sherlock said, back still to him, like an animal that doesn’t trust enough to bare its soft belly.

“Bullshit.”

Sherlock turned around. John looked at him steadily. Sherlock had said something to that effect only once before, and John had looked the term up online afterwards. He’d found that it hadn’t been used by psychiatrists in decades.

Sherlock exhaled.

“Because I know those things make you uncomfortable,” he answered quietly after a moment of thought.

“There you go then,” John said, smiling a little. “So, did you sleep?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “A little. I was thinking about omnia causa fiunt again, and that necklace – ”

John fell back onto his pillow with a groan. “Take a day off, Sherlock,” he saw Sherlock open his mouth to argue, but interrupted. “I know you can’t, but you know what I mean. Those cases are dead and gone now. Don’t work yourself up over them. You did good with those two,”

Sherlock seemed to be considering something, and then he drew in a breath and seemed to change the subject of his mental monologue. “Well.”

“What?”

“Did well. Good is not an adverb,” Sherlock elaborated. He put his violin down and found his phone, tapping on the screen. “Which is why you don’t say I’m doing good when someone asks you how you are, you say I’m doing well.”

“Okay,” John said, trying to find a loophole. “But what if… I meant good as… a… noun?” John sat up again, stretching. “What then?”

Sherlock opened his mouth and John instantly regretted saying anything.

***

John was avoiding the gaze of his maths teacher. So far, he had only been called on to answer a question once, and was currently concentrating on making himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. He could feel his phone vibrating every so often, but decided against running the risk again. He knew Sherlock would sulk at him later for it, but John decided he could bare it.

His teacher said something about going to print off a sheet and left the room, and John let out a small breath of relief. He took out his phone as chatter erupted around him.

Sherlock:The people in this class should be in with the year eights.

Sherlock:I think the boy across the aisle from me doesn’t even know what a declension is.

Sherlock:My teacher’s wearing a nicotine patch. Do you think I could ask to borrow it?

Sherlock:John?

Sherlock:Helloooo?

John:Sorry, I couldn’t reply because Mrs Bramham was still in the room, I barely got away with it last time

He locked his phone again and sat back in his chair, eavesdropping a little on the conversations that had broken out around him. They seemed only to have one subject.

“Hey, John,” a boy asked from across the aisle. “What’re Doyle doing tonight again?”

Come on Eileen,” John replied. “What about – ” he glanced down at the boy’s tie. “Green?”

Give me, give me, give me a man after midnight,” he sang, his friend next to him joining in. John laughed as his phone vibrated again.

Sherlock:The only thing people seem able to talk about today is this evening.

John:Same here. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal.

John:Excited yet?

Sherlock:What do you think?

John sighed. He tried to get an image of a jittery Sherlock sitting alone in some dusty Latin classroom out of his head.

John:I’m pretty nervous to be honest. It’s going to be fun though

John:Besides, Dickens is on first so we can start the night off by mercilessly ridiculing Anderson, how does that sound?

Sherlock:…Tolerable.

John::)

***

Sherlock was sitting on one of the beds in the ward of the san, violin under his chin, eyes closed. He was playing something slow and sweet, despite John having told him not to play at all.

After maths, John had dragged Sherlock along to the san during their shared free period to have some company while he manned the desk.

‘Manned the desk’ was a relative term; John spent more time pushing himself around the ward in the wheeled chair from behind said desk, which was what he was doing while Sherlock played.

He looked up from a text from Jeannette and tried to think of a reply. Something appropriately sweet but with a hint of the wry humour he knew she liked…

His gaze caught on the fingers of Sherlock’s left hand as they gripped the neck of the violin, pressing down on the individual strings with precision as his other hand drew the bow smoothly across them. John rarely saw his roommate play with his eyes closed – he usually only did it when he was thinking extremely deeply. There was a small crease between his eyebrows, and occasionally his mouth would twitch as if anticipating replying to someone.

Footsteps squeaked down the corridor and a nurse poked her head around the doorframe. When she caught sight of Sherlock, the question that was forming on her lips fell away with her lower jaw. John gave her a smile and a ‘yeah, I know’ look, and she turned and walked back out of sight again.

John wondered what Sherlock thought about. And how he thought. Did Sherlock always see his Mind Palace? Did he see himself walking around it like one would see a video game character as it moved through a universe, or did he see himself as he did in real life – glimpses in mirrors, his feet if he looked down? Then the thought struck him – did Sherlock have an imaginary John in his imaginary palace? Just as John could recall Sherlock’s face to mind when he pleased, Sherlock would be able to do the same, but knowing Sherlock, that would not be the limit. What did imaginary John do in that Mind Palace? Just sit around and wait for Sherlock to come home? Or did imaginary John come and go as he pleased? Did imaginary John have free will, or was he simply there to reflect Sherlock’s thoughts back to him?

John’s phone vibrated and lit up with a text, and as it went dark again, John saw his reflection in the screen and nearly laughed aloud at the deep, fretful frown on his face.

Jeanette:John? You still there? x

John:Bit of an unrelated question, but how realistic and/or possible do you think it is that humanity is actually some sort of Sims-like situation?

As he sent his reply, he heard the door to the san opening. He got up and dragged the chair back behind the desk and managed to sit down again just as the patient, a small girl with corn rows, rounded the corner into his view.

John realised very suddenly what was ailing the girl when she stopped speaking halfway through telling him her name and put a hand to her mouth. John scrambled behind the desk for the bin and handed it to her, rushing around the side of the desk to hold back her hair as she vomited.

Five minutes later, John entered the ward with a glass of water in his hand. The girl, Angelica, was lying in one of the beds with her eyes closed. Sherlock was still playing his violin, though John could have sworn he was doing so quieter than before.

“Here you go, love,” he said gently, placing the glass on the bedside table. Angelica opened her eyes and thanked him as he pulled up a chair. “So you’ve been feeling a bit off since last night, you say?”

She nodded. “I was feeling fine at dinner, but just as I was about to go to bed… I thought it was maybe just my period but I’ve never even had cramps before.”

“But this is the first time you’ve been sick since you began to feel ill?”

“Yeah.”

Mid-note, Sherlock stopped playing. Angelica and John both looked towards him.

“What did you eat for dinner?” the tall boy asked, eyes open now but narrowed.

“Uh,” Angelica began, looking to John for reassurance.

“It’s fine,” John said.

“Rice and that Mexican chili,” she recounted, and John flicked a glance to Sherlock, but his roommate didn’t even so much as notice. “And jelly for pudding,”

“How about breakfast this morning? Lunch?” John asked, trying to keep his voice neutral.

“I tried to have a boiled egg and some toast but I just couldn’t stomach it. Lunch, I didn’t have anything. Stayed in house.”

Sherlock hopped off the bed he was sitting on and began walking over to Angelica’s. “Has anyone else been feeling – ”

“Uh, Sherlock, can I have a word?” John interrupted. “Just rest a bit, yeah?” he said to Angelica as he got up and put a hand on Sherlock’s arm, leading him out of the room. He put the door to behind him.

“It was pizza night last night.”

Sherlock drew his eyebrows together. “It was what now?”

“Pizza night, at dinner,” John repeated. “And keep your voice down.”

“So… no chili?”

John shook his head. “No chili, no rice – Mexican night was Wednesday. And yesterday’s dessert was chocolate cookies and yoghurt. Not a spoonful of jelly in sight. The things you miss when you don’t go to meals regularly, eh?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes at him, then brought his hands up to his pursed lips. “How about breakfast?”

“You were there, I made you come today,” John said, his turn to frown.

“Yes, but I wasn’t paying attention.”

John resisted the urge to sigh. “They never have boiled eggs on Fridays. Boiled eggs is Wednesdays and Mondays,” He explained. He watched Sherlock thinking for a moment, before continuing. “So either she’s lying…”

“Why would she, though? What reason would she have to conceal what she’d eaten?” his roommate mused. “And anyway, I’m pretty sure she’s not.”

“How do you know?”

“I took a course in lie detection meant for police officers when I was nine. Sure, it’s a little rudimentary, and I would have liked to have taken – ”

“I’ll take your word for it,” John interrupted. “In that case, the only other option is that she’s genuinely just… forgotten.”

“Amnesia. Interesting.” Sherlock mused, before turning suddenly and striding back into the ward. John cursed under his breath, and, as always, followed.

“What sports do you play, Angelica?”

Angelica shakily sat up. “I swim,” she said with a confused expression. “Why?”

“Oh, just making sure you’re leading a balanced lifestyle is all. Very important in this day and age. How about your five-a-day, is that quota being fulfilled?”

“Isn’t John supposed to be the one – ”

“Yes, but we’re on a very limited time schedule and John speaks too slowly. Now, have you been injured recently – hit in the head, for example?”

“Who even are you? This is none of your business.”

“My name is Sherlock Holmes and it is my business to know what other people do not. And I am way more qualified than John anyway, so an answer?”

“Sherlock!” John interjected. “Another word?”

Sherlock took a visible breath and followed John out. “What?” he demanded.

“Bit not good,” John said. “If she does have amnesia, she’s probably really confused and she’s feeling like shit anyway because she’s just thrown up and some bloke she doesn’t know is shooting questions at her like rubber fucking bullets, okay?”

Sherlock studied him for a second, then exhaled slowly. “Fine.”

“Everything alright, boys?”

Sherlock and John whipped around to see one of the doctors coming down the corridor. She was carrying a mug of tea, a biscuit, and a concerned expression.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” John replied. “By the way, do you happen to know if there’s been a stomach bug going around or anything?”

The doctor shrugged. “Don’t think so. It’s been pretty quiet since that cold. Why?”

“Just got a girl in who’s a bit under the weather, I was wondering whether it was something we should be expecting more of,” John explained.

“Oh, I hope not,” the doctor made a face and walked into the kitchen.

John sighed. “Well, then, I suppose I’d better get back behind the desk, then,” he said after a moment.

“Mm,” Sherlock agreed. “I don’t think you’ll get any more vomiters, though.”

“You’d better be right,” John said, wandering back over to his desk.

Sherlock smiled at him, and before John could stop him, walked purposefully back into the ward. John could only hope he was going to be civil, because he could do nothing as he heard the door to the building open again.

Luckily, the patient was only there for an injection, and John soon got him settled on a pew. He had just started looking through the desk drawers out of boredom when he heard Sherlock’s violin start up anew. Except it was a tune John recognised… he looked up at the boy on the pew, who was looking back at him with a bemused but happily surprised expression, which John felt sure was being matched on his own features.

John stood and went to the door of the ward. He pushed it open a little.

Angelica was sitting up in her bed, laughing weakly, while Sherlock was sitting on one of the beds opposite, one leg crossed neatly over the other, a barely-detectable smile lingering on his mouth.

“You a big Britney fan, then?” John laughed.

Sherlock rolled his eyes, unable to speak as his chin was otherwise occupied.

“I asked him if he knew any other songs,” Angelica explained, grinning.

John watched Sherlock, unable to stop grinning himself. He thought he could see the blood flowing through his veins, arteries, capillaries – watched the boy before him pulse with life. When Sherlock played the final note with an over-the-top flourish, taking a deep bow, John and Angelica both applauded.

“Very well done, sir,” John praised. “Bravo.”

“Yes, well,” Sherlock replied. “As much fun as this has been, we’re late for biology.”

“Biology?” John said, pushing up a sleeve and checking his watch. “Shit, Sherlock, we missed break?”

Sherlock gave him a look as if to say, yes, and?

John sighed.

***

“I’ll go in first,” John said as the pair approached their biology classroom. “After last lesson’s debacle with the Bunsen burner and poor Alice’s plait – ”

“She shouldn’t have leaned over it,” Sherlock muttered. “Basic lab safety. Not my fault.”

“Whatever,” John dismissed. “After that, I don’t think Doctor Hope’s your biggest fan right now.”

“If you say so,” his roommate conceded as they stopped outside the door.

John gave him a look, raised his hand, knocked quietly and turned the handle.

“Ah, Watson, Holmes. So nice of you to join us,” Dr Hope said, from the front of the classroom. “I hope whatever kept you was worthwhile.”

“Sorry, sir, we were – ” John began, but his excuse was drowned under an eruption of wolf-whistles and laughter from the class. John took a breath and scanned the room for Mike. He was sitting next to Molly, who was trying to hide her smile and abruptly looked down when she caught John’s eye. Mike simply shrugged, and John could hear exactly what he would be saying – your own fault, mate.

“That’s enough,” Dr Hope said, and the class quietened. John could almost feel Sherlock bursting with some sort of retort and desperately wanted to give him a warning look, but he thought ignoring the boy would be a better idea at that particular moment. “Go and sit down – and get yourself a dissecting tray. It’s hearts today, but we’re short, so you’re going to have to share one.”

The two didn’t speak until they had taken their seats, kitted out in lab coats and safety goggles, both looking at the bloody heart sitting on the desk between them.

“I probably should have gone in first.”

“Oh, fuck off,” John said, but he wasn’t angry, and he knew Sherlock knew by the tiny smile he could see on the corners of his friend’s mouth. “It wouldn’t have made an ounce of difference.”

There was a pause before Sherlock said, “Right, then. Best get to work.”

“Mm,” John replied, and picked up a scalpel.

Some minutes later, John had been relegated to holding the organ in place with a pair of tongs in one hand and a splint in the other, while Sherlock snipped away at some tissue.

“This is just unfair, Sherlock.”

“Life isn’t fair, John. It’s not my fault you can’t dissect for toffee,” Sherlock replied. “You’re really going to have to improve your technique – your future career is on the line.”

“I want to be a doctor, not a bloody surgeon,” John replied.

“Aw, look at you two,” Mike’s voice cooed, and John looked up to see the boy, having turned around form his and Molly’s desk in front of them, grinning at him. “Kind of romantic isn’t it? Dissecting a heart together – oh, there could be a metaphor in there somewhere.”

“Mike,” John warned. “Don’t you have an organ of your own to be inserting pointed instruments into? Or do you want some help with that?”

“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, you know I’m just playing,” Mike dismissed with a jovial grin. “Nah, can’t stand blood. Molly’s much more into all this stuff than me, so she’s doing mine too.”

“Doesn’t she mind?”

“It was my idea,” Molly called, not turning around from where she was hunched over Mike’s tray. John heard Sherlock exhale a laugh beside him.

“So in all seriousness, what kept you?” Mike asked.

“San duty,” John explained as Sherlock freed a chunk of muscle, placing it delicately on a square of tissue. “Someone let us overrun.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Someone let us overrun,” he imitated under his breath.

“Can I have a go with the heart now?” John asked, pretending he hadn’t heard.

“No, get your own,” Sherlock replied.

“I can’t, that’s the whole point,” John said. “We’re sharing it, or have you conveniently forgotten?”

“I think it technically belongs to me, seeing as I’m the one actually doing anything,” Sherlock said, pushing his scalpel into the muscle.

John shot a look at Mike, who was laughing at them, and replied, “Not by my own volition!”

“But I’m nearly done,” Sherlock whined.

“Let John have a go, Sherlock,” Mike reasoned. “Besides, when was the last time anything was yours or John’s anyway.”

John considered how to respond to that, but decided not to retaliate as Sherlock dropped his arms a little at Mike’s words, giving John an opportunity to slide the tray away from him. “You know, I don’t think you have ever asked to borrow anything, you just take what you want when you want it,” he said, and Mike nodded as if to say my point exactly.

However, it was not long before the two were landed in detention for disruption – “You’ve got the worst fucking case of back-seat driver syndrome I’ve ever fucking seen, Sherlock, holy fuck!”

***

After rugby that afternoon – in which he thought Angelo was tackling him just a little too hard – John walked back to house with Mike, chatting about the upcoming match that weekend.

“They’re not huge rivals, but – ” Mike was saying, interrupted by the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps behind him. They both turned around to see Sherlock striding up to them, his hair mysteriously wet. “Hey, Sherlock, where’ve you been?”

“Swimming,” he replied curtly as he levelled with the pair, and all three rounded the corner and began to walk up the path to Doyle’s front door.

“I thought you only did that at night,” John questioned.

“It’s a wonder what hacking into a database and cancelling a few things can do,” Sherlock replied nonchalantly.

Mike chuckled while John rolled his eyes. “Oh, John, did you hear about house art?”

“No, why?” John asked, putting in the code and holding the door open for the others.

“Just thought it might be your kind of thing,” Mike said, stepping inside. “See – here,” he pointed at a poster, the same one that John had noticed before he had strode out into the night om his pyjamas to find Sherlock.

“The deadline’s next week?” John exclaimed, peering at the paper pinned to the noticeboard. “You could have given me a little more warning, Mike, Jesus.”

Mike shrugged. “Says the theme’s chiaroscuro… what’s that?”

“Like, light and dark,” John explained distractedly as Sherlock began to move towards the stairs. “Look, I’ll see you later, yeah?”

As John followed Sherlock up the stairs, he heard Mike sigh below them. “Yeah… later.”

***

“Eat something.”

“Not hungry.”

“I know,” John breathed out and set down his fork. “I know you’re not.”

There was a pause in which Sherlock seemed to be scanning the room, but his eyes kept flicking back to John’s steady gaze.

“I’m not hungry, John,” he repeated.

“You’re never hungry,” John replied. “You weren’t hungry two mornings ago when you ate all of my toast. Or last week, when half of my curry mysteriously disappeared when I went up to get more water. Oh, and when was it? Yesterday night? When you said you hated hot chocolate not two minutes before you nicked mine before I could even take a sip and I had to make ano-”

“John.” Sherlock interrupted, so quietly and with such reluctance that John immediately cut off. “I may throw up. All over you.”

Oh. John thought to himself. He glanced at the clock on the wall of the dining hall. Just over an hour to go, no wonder. “You don’t have amnesia too, do you?” he joked after a moment, unable to think of anything to say that wouldn’t make Sherlock more embarrassed than he must have already been feeling.

His friend rewarded him for his efforts with a tiny quirk of the mouth that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

John pursed his lips, thinking. The last time Sherlock had eaten had been – last night, oh crap. He was aware Sherlock was watching him out of the corner of his eye, so he picked up his fork again and scooped up some peas while he took out his phone.

John:Hey, Mike, do you feel like ordering takeaway later?

***

John was sitting atop his bunk, fruitlessly trying to think of something to draw for the house art competition. Sherlock was sitting on his desk, absently ripping up bits of paper and burning them in the flame of the Bunsen burner which was waving languidly in the stillness. John’s thoughts were more concerned with his roommate than the competition – he was being quiet. Not unusually so, but he was being the kind of quiet that John’s worry spilled into; it was a hole between them, and Sherlock was still in the bottom with a shovel.

The bubbling but muffled voices that had been coming from the corridor for the past ten minutes rose up into a bout of laughter and a brief spat of shouting.

“I’m going to go see what they’re doing,” John said mainly to himself, for lack of anything better to say or do, getting up and descending the ladder. Sherlock gave him a barely-listening hum in reply.

Upon poking his head out of the door, John saw Mike and the others sitting at the other end of the corridor, each with small white cards in their hands.

“Hey, John!” Eric called upon seeing him.

“What’re you doing?” John called back.

“Killing time,” Claus replied.

“We’re playing Cards Against Humanity,” Glen added. “Want to join?”

“Never heard of it, but sure,” John said, glad he had something to take his mind off the clock. “Two secs, though,” he said, turning back inside room twenty-one. “Sherlock, do you want to come and play a card game?”

“Not really,” came the deadpan reply.

“Don’t give me that,” John said briskly, and in one step had turned off the Bunsen burner and grabbed Sherlock by the arm, pulling him off the desk.

John sat Sherlock down next to Claus on the thin carpet and took a seat next to and opposite him, his feet by his hip. “So, how do you play?”

Mike explained the rules and handed Sherlock and John ten white cards each. Upon reading them, John could feel his eyes widen – he looked up at Sherlock, who was shifting through his with one raised eyebrow.

The round began, and Sherlock surprised everyone by winning the first three consecutively. John nearly choked the first time Sherlock said the word ‘micropenis’, sending Vlad into a fit of laughter that set everyone else off – everyone but Sherlock, who John was watching out of the corner of his eye. As the game progressed, his friend seemed to be drawing further into himself.

By the time it was at the end of the fourth round and John was collecting responses for the card ‘how am I maintaining my current relationship status?’ (which included ‘praying the gay away’ and ‘boring vaginal sex’), Sherlock was absently rifling through his cards and staring fixedly at the patch of wall above his feet. John leaned over his friend’s legs to reach for a card that Eric was handing him,  one hand on Sherlock’s calf, partially to steady himself and partially just to touch him – Sherlock, I’m here, you’re still here, see?

John was about to read out the responses when the door to the corridor opened and Lestrade strode through, stopping short when he saw the boys sitting on the floor grinning up at him.

“What’re you doing?”

John cleared his throat and held up his winning card. “How am I maintaining my current relationship status? An ether-soaked rag.”

“I… I see,” Lestrade said. “Anyway, time to get ready – fifteen minutes ‘til we meet downstairs, boys, yes?”

There was a chorus of ‘yes, sir’ and the boys began to clear away the cards.

John followed Sherlock back to their room. After closing the door behind them, he considered saying something – what, exactly, he didn’t know – but his roommate wordlessly turned his back to him and opened his wardrobe. John pursed his lips and after a moment, did the same.

Lestrade had mass-ordered cheap blue dungarees and about a week previously they had arrived, the year nines a pitiful sight as they carted the huge boxes to the house from the porters’ lodge. John pulled his off a hanger and quickly stripped to his underwear and a plain t-shirt, aware that Sherlock was doing the same thing behind him. He stepped into the garment and pulled the straps over his shoulders. He caught sight of his reflection and sighed – he felt ridiculous. Socks next – long, to go under his CCF boots. The inch or so of visible skin between the top of the boots and the bottom of the trousers was irritating him. He knew they were supposed to look like that but that didn’t stop him feeling like –

Hands on his upper arm. Sherlock was rolling up the sleeves of his t-shirt. A question formed on John’s lips but Sherlock mumbled a quick reply before he had even heard it.

“More in-keeping with the style,” he said, nimble fingers sure and efficient as he finished one sleeve and turned John so he had access to the other. “Besides. Looks better this way. You’ve worked for those biceps, so you may as well show them off.”

John’s mind skipped back over that sentence, faltering slightly – did Sherlock just say he had nice arms? John was suddenly hyper-aware of every brush of Sherlock’s skin on his own. It was so rare for his friend to compliment him, it was a shock each time. It was a reminder that Sherlock noticed him – noticed different parts of him for different reasons; sometimes it felt like he didn’t even realise he was there at all, so those little acknowledgements didn’t come often enough. A small thought half-formed underneath all of that, however, a small thought about first compliment about his body, but John didn’t give it time to gestate, as Sherlock gave John’s arm a light squeeze – there, done – and stepped back, face as solemn as ever.

“Well,” John said into Sherlock’s quiet. “Thanks, I guess.”

Sherlock gave him a tight smile and after a pause, abruptly turned on his heel, grabbing his blazer, and slipped out of the room.

***

John was standing in the foyer of the house, looking at the crowd of boys in dungarees. He could feel the prickling of the adrenaline in the air on his skin. Someone was playing some sort of dance track on their phone, and Lestrade was standing on the stairs, trying to count the moving heads. John knew he would come up one short.

“Oi! Stay still – Glen, stop that!” he was shouting. “Shut up!”

At that, the boys fell silent, but the music continued to play as someone fumbled to turn it off, eliciting nervous laughter from those in its proximity. Once it had ceased, Lestrade finished counting.

He groaned.

“John?” he said, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Where’s Sherlock?”

John had been hoping his roommate would have re-appeared by that point, but to no avail. “I’ll go and look.”

As he pushed through the boys and started up the stairs, two at a time, he could hear hushed conversations breaking out below – their tones ranging from angry to disbelieving to resigned. He looked back and caught Mike’s eye – the boy mouthed one word to him: attic. John gave him a nod – he had been thinking exactly the same thing.

First, however, he bypassed into their room, picking up Sherlock’s violin and bow and, after doubling back, a block of rosin (just in case), and then continuing up to the top of the building.

True enough, the lock on the trap door in the ceiling of the uppermost corridor was open, as was the door itself. Directly underneath it was an upturned washing basket. John knew Sherlock could easily get himself up into the attic without it, and smiled – he had left it there in anticipation of John’s coming to find him.

John rounded the corner into Sherlock’s former bedroom and let out a breath at the sight of Sherlock’s silhouette through the open window. He stepped out into the unyielding darkness and sat down next to his friend.

“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t turn up,” Sherlock said after a moment.

John fought the urge to laugh. He should have been angry. “You’ve got to stop doing this,” he said eventually.

Sherlock didn’t reply to that, and they both watched as a small patch of dark appeared to move along the road towards the assembly hall, and after a second they caught wild singing on the wind.

“Time to go, I think,” Sherlock said quietly. John handed him his violin and bow, and Sherlock gripped them.

“Sherlock – ” John began, but when his friend looked up at him, the words died on his tongue. “I brought you this as well,” he said instead, showing him the rosin.

His friend looked at him for a second, with those eyes he could barely see in the night air, and then took the small cube from him.

“Come on,” John said, getting up and waiting for Sherlock to do the same.

They left the attic door and the washing basket as they were, and as soon as they got onto the stairs, John leaned over the banister and shouted to the assembled below, “Got him!”

A great cheer went up, along with some shouts of ‘finally!

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, John could only just hear Lestrade over the raised voices of the boys as he thanked John.

“Let’s go!” Lestrade shouted, and someone opened the door and the house began to stream out.

One of the upper sixth started up a chant, and John couldn’t help joining in, having to work quite hard to keep up with the pace of the group. Sherlock was having no trouble, however, as he strode silently beside him.

“Hey, hey, everyone?” Eddie was saying from the front, walking backwards. Luckily, the Hulk heard his efforts, and silenced everyone with a yell. “Thanks, everyone – one last run-through? I know we don’t have most of the instruments here, but, Sherlock?”

John looked at his roommate, and it was impossible to read his expression in the blue-black dark.

“Sir, yes sir,” he shouted back, lifting his violin to his chin.

The singing that ensued wasn’t much like singing at all – more like a slightly tuneful football chant, but Sherlock’s violin rang out clear into the air, a singular cry like an owl’s in the night.

When they entered the assembly hall, over half of the school was already there and the noise

“Told you people get into it!” Mike said into his ear. John could only nod in reply.

Lestrade ushered them into their seats, and tried to halt a Mexican wave that one of the year tens started, but with little success.

John looked around him in awe – he wouldn’t have recognised the room as the same one he had sat in assembly in that morning if he hadn’t known. The stage was fully built; wings, lights, microphones, instruments all in their places. The back of the stage was lit red and purple, and the main hall lights were yet to be turned off, so John could see in great detail the other houses’ costumes. The girls across the aisle from them – Sarah’s house, John realised – were all in bright yellow; the boys across the other aisle seemed to all be in ridiculously flared jeans and headbands; each of the girls in front of them wore a white karate gi, if he wasn’t mistaken.

The shouting of the boys and the screaming of the girls was beginning to make John’s heart beat just a little faster, coupled with the bass-heavy pop song being played from the speakers and the fact that all of the houses appeared to be present now – Sherlock’s fingers were tapping against his thigh next to him. John leaned in so he could be heard, and he felt the tapping stop.

“I can’t see Dickens, do you think they’re backstage already?”

Sherlock hummed in affirmation, then went back to surveying the room intently.

“How’re you feeling?” John asked after a moment.

Sherlock gave him a look as if to say seriously?

He was about to say something else, something he felt he should have said before they got there, but the hall lights dimmed until they weren’t on at all, and a great hush fell over the pupils, followed by a rising ‘ooh’. 

The deputy head stepped out onto the stage, microphone in hand. The cheering that began was deafening, which made John laugh, because –

“I swear everyone hates her?” he yelled to Mike.

“We do,” his friend replied, and went back to whooping and clapping.

“Okay, settle down,” she said after a few moments, but that only renewed the cheering, stronger and louder. “Alright, everyone, let’s get this underway.”

She made a short speech, explaining the rules, pointing out the judges, who were sitting at the front of the hall at a table, warning against rowdy behaviour, and finally doing a house roll call.

As Doyle was called, everyone cheered and stood up – everyone except Sherlock. When John realised his friend was still sitting down, his voice faltered out. When they sat back down again, he leaned over.

“You okay?”

Sherlock looked back at him, and there was something about the rigidity of his features that was far from the normal impassivity he usually adopted.

John didn’t know what to do or say except put a hand lamely on his arm and squeeze.

The first house up and began to assemble on the stage, a collective confused mumbling spread through the hall – it seemed only half of the Dickens boys were there, and they were all in what looked like basketball uniforms.

“Can you see Anderson?” John whispered to Sherlock. “I can’t.”

Sherlock shook his head.

The room fell silent. After a moment, the music started up – drums, and John was sure he recognised the beat.

“No,” he said incredulously under his breath, the song finally registering.

“What?” Sherlock asked.

“They told everyone they were doing Queen,” John said.

“And?”

“And this is not Queen, Sherlock,” John replied as the boys on stage stepped forward and began to sing.

They moved forward, clapping along with the drums, and the audience began to do the same.

All of a sudden, the other half of the house appeared, strutting on from the wings in poorly-fitting cheerleaders’ outfits, singing their hearts out – “Here and now, it’s time for celebration…

Laughter mixed with cheers broke out in the audience, and he heard Sherlock splutter before he saw the cause. It was Anderson, his hairy legs protruding from under the red skirt of his dress and a face like thunder, along with another similarly-dressed boy, moving forward to flank the boys singing the next verse – “Everyone is special in their own way…

“Why everyone screaming? Am I missing something?” Sherlock asked, leaning over to John.

“Oh, Sherlock,” John replied. “Oh, you poor soul. Don’t worry, I’ll educate you later.”

At the end of the song, John looked over at his friend, and there were the beginnings of a smile in his expression. While Dickens took their seats and Frank got up and disappeared backstage, John said, “That was better than I could ever have imagined.”

“He’s never going to live that down,” Sherlock replied. “I won’t let him.”

The next number was an almost obnoxiously happy one. John had to admit that yellow suited Sarah – she was glowing. But that could have just been the reflection from her t-shirt.

“That colour doesn’t suit her at all,” Sherlock said in his ear, as if he knew exactly what John was thinking. Which he probably did, John reminded himself.

Next up was Golding – they took their places on a dark stage, but John knew a lot of the finer details of their act, as Jamie Lancaster had complained about it in the last san session they had worked together. A spotlight was on a small boy with a trumpet sitting on the front of the stage. He raised it to his lips and began. There was a shout of “Shakira, Shakira!” which made John laugh until the lights came up fully a split second later and he was presented with a row of topless boys’ backs, adorned with silver sequins and glittering under the lights.

“Is that Jamie? From the san? In the middle?” Mike leaned over to him as the song got underway to the audible delight of the girls in the audience.

“Yeah,” John replied. “He didn’t tell me about this.”

“Well, his hips definitely do not lie,” Mike commented, and John didn’t have a response to that. The boys in the front row had obviously been chosen for another reason than their dance skills (which were being shown off spectacularly as their hips swayed to and fro); the same reason that they were the only boys in the house to be topless and that he could barely hear the music under the screams of the girls. He couldn’t really blame them – the contrast between the silver glinting of the sequins and the darkness of Jamie’s skin as it moved over his muscles was so –

Artistically interesting, definite chiaroscuro there, John thought loudly.

He spent the rest of the duration of the song half envious of the rhythm that those boys possessed, half something else that he couldn’t quite pin down but knew that he definitely did not like.

“Well,” Mike said while they clapped the boys off the stage. “That was… interesting.”

“That’s one word for it,” John replied.

The next few houses performed without incident, and half way through Pullman’s enthusiastic and fantastically costumed rendition of A Little Less Conversation, John glanced down at the programme and felt his heart stop. There was only one song remaining between Doyle and the stage, and he cast a quick look to Sherlock to see if he’d realised.

Of course, he had.

He had his violin across his knees, hands resting unnaturally casually on it. His back was held straight and John could see his chest rising and falling quickly and shallowly.

John leaned in. “Come to the loo with me,” he instructed, giving his sleeve a small tug as Pullman launched into their final few bars. As soon as the music had finished, John slipped out of his seat.

They had to push through the Pullman boys returning to their seats, but they found the door to the backstage area without too much hassle. They sidled into the bathroom without being noticed as they heard the audience fall quiet in anticipation of the next song.

The echoes of their shoes scuffing against the grimy tiles faded away until there was silence between them again.

“Play it through for me.”

“I am sick of playing it through, it’s – I know it, it’s defunct!” Sherlock exclaimed, startling John a little with the force behind his words. However, he did not let it show.

“Fine, then,” John said, not changing his tone nor expression. “Play me something else.”

Sherlock cocked his head at him. John looked levelly back for a moment, then put his back against the wall and slid to the floor, knees up by his chest, and closed his eyes.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock’s voice sounded genuinely uncertain.

“Waiting for you to play me something,” John replied, leaning his head back and making himself comfortable.

He heard his friend sigh. Then, a moment later, a melody John recognised filled the cold bathroom. After a little while, the sound moved closer to him until it appeared that Sherlock was standing right next to him. Then, abruptly, the music cut out.

“This is stupid,” Sherlock muttered, and John opened his eyes. Sherlock avoided his gaze and sat next to him, knees up as John’s were, arms curled around them and violin and bow clutched in one hand.

The faint strains of Viva La Vida could be heard from the stage, and John realised there wasn’t much time left.

“Sherlock,” he began, resolving to say something, anything, what he had meant to say hours before. His friend replied with a small hum. “You know this is going to go fine, don’t you.”

It wasn’t a question, because John knew it was true.

“Of course.” His friend replied quietly. “Which is why it’s so…” he trailed off, making a vague gesture with a hand.

They sat in silence for a moment.

“It’s irrational, I’m being so – ”

“It’s human,” John responded, stopping Sherlock mid-sentence.

His friend didn’t look at him except for a quick glance. “Yes, well,” he said. “To be avoided.”

Now it was John’s turn to look away. They both stared at the same stain on the floor in front of them. John wanted to put his arms around the boy next to him but couldn’t bring himself to. He didn’t think it would have been well-received, so he tightened his grip on his own knees for a moment instead.

When the clapping and cheering broke out again, John exhaled slowly and stood up. He offered his hand to Sherlock, and for a second he didn’t think he was going to take it. But then those pale fingers reached up and closed around his own.

“Sherlock – ” John began after a brief hesitation, pulling him to his feet.

“I know,” the other boy interrupted, but without the malice John would have expected.

The next thing John knew, he was watching Sherlock walk out of the door of the building to wait by the entrance to the hall at the back of the auditorium. The rest of Doyle swarmed into the wings, and Mike threw an arm around John’s shoulders. “Here we go!” he whispered.

John was thrumming with an uncomfortable mixture of worry and adrenaline (and not a tiny bit of fear), but he knew that it wasn’t directed at himself. However, that knowledge did not lessen its potency in the slightest.

Suddenly, the stage lights fell into darkness and he heard the audience hush.

Mike gave him a final slap on the back and retracted his arm.

John barely had time to wipe his (oddly steady) palms on his dungarees before the house surged forward into view.

Being one of the shortest members of the sixth form, he took his place in the front row. Sixth form, year eleven, year ten, year nine, on raised steps so all could be seen. Musicians in the right hand corner of the front of the stage, their blazers over their dungarees. And all of them in utter darkness. He knew the audience could see little more than dark silhouettes, but he could see each and every face, at least for the first few rows. He knew Sherlock had just slipped silently through the door at the back, barely attracting the attention of the people sitting there. Tried not to think too hard about how he must have been feeling.

The lights came up, and John was surprised at their strength, and then he waited. The entire house did. For Sherlock. For what felt like hours, they waited, but in reality John knew it must have been mere seconds, agonising, terrible seconds, before –

Sherlock began to walk. John could see him. Down the right hand aisle, he was walking, violin raised to his chin. And though John could barely see his facial expression from that distance, he knew that Sherlock was looking him straight in the eyes.

There. Loud and clear and drawn out so it was almost sorrowful, Sherlock began to play. There was a collective rustle as the heads of the audience turned to watch him wander down towards the stage, mesmerised – and quite rightly; Sherlock looked completely at ease, the very picture of serenity and composure, coaxing long notes from the instrument held so delicately in the curve of his neck. He had elongated the introduction, maybe tripling its length, so that it sounded more like a lament than the start of a pop song, and John was so wrapped up in him – it – that the first notes of Eric’s bass almost made him jump. A bump on the left side of his body reminded him he was supposed to be swaying. He could feel himself blush as he began to move, but then Sherlock began playing again and now he was so close that John could see his eyes and they were fixed solely on John’s. John smiled at him and was given a barely detectable one in return; two private greetings.

Eddie swiped his hand across the piano and then they were singing, and John didn’t have to think about it as he moved forward with the rest of the front row and crouched, as if proposing, and just then, Sherlock reached the front and turned, standing right in the middle and facing the audience. Sherlock was so close to John, the latter could have reached out and tousled the former's hair, which was glossy under the lights.

Sooner than John would have expected, they launched into the first chorus, and his arms seemed to move of their own accord as the choreography seemed more muscle memory that anything else by then, and he was surprised to find the grin plastered on his face was not false in the slightest.

The second chorus came and went, and, entering into the bridge, the instruments ceased, save the drum and the piano. The boys held their hands above their heads and clapped along with their chants of “Come on! Eileen, too loo rye ay!” but John nearly cut out mid-word as he saw Sherlock begin to move.

He was walking to the steps that led onto the stage, violin still under his chin but bow by his side – this wasn’t the plan, Sherlock, what are you doing? He was supposed to stay in front of the stage for the entire song, and John could feel the confusion spreading through the boys either side of and behind him as he climbed the steps and began to walk in front of them.

As the music sped up again, Sherlock stopped walking in the middle of the stage, planted his feet and put his bow to the strings, drawing out the long notes that followed the pitch of the final “Too-rah loo-rye ay.” Just before the song reached its crescendo, all the musicians took their hands off their instruments, just as planned, and Sherlock played fast and boldly and, just as every other time he had heard it, it sent shivers down John’s spine for reasons unknown. With a flourish, Sherlock played the last note, then continued playing as he – to John’s surprise – sat down and dangled his legs over the side of the stage, and only he could have made sitting down without using his hands for balance look effortless.

Soon enough, the musicians began to play quieter and quieter as the boys lowered the volume of their singing as well – now with arms around each other and swaying as if drunk – until the sound coming off the stage was barely a whisper, then cut out altogether. They remained on the stage as the lights came down again, and John was grateful for the cover of darkness once more. Before they could leave it, however, they had to wait for Sherlock to reprise his solo introduction. He played it at the regular tempo this time, and its solitary sound soaring up to the rafters was simultaneously the loneliest and most contented thing John had ever heard.

As the final note faded out, the applause was almost instantaneous. In the dark, John could see Sherlock stand up and move to join the rest of the house as they moved forward to take their bows. John grabbed him and pulled him into the line beside him just before the lights came up again and the applause renewed its strength, and he heard some cheers in there as well – one sounded suspiciously like Irene Adler, and John smiled. He and Sherlock were shoulder to shoulder as they bowed, once, twice, three times, then waited as the rest of the musicians took their bows.

As soon as they stepped into the wings, John threw his arms around Sherlock’s neck. He heard a small “oof” of surprise in his ear and they stumbled a little as Sherlock was thrown by this new extra weight hanging off him.

“You were amazing.”

“John, what are – ” Sherlock began, and it was odd to feel as well as hear the deepness of his voice.

“You’re supposed to hug back, moron,” John interrupted, aware that they were attracting attention and also in the way of the girls from Kay who were beginning to make their way into the wings.

“But we’re… okay,” Sherlock said, bringing his hands up and resting them lightly on John’s back.

John laughed. “You’re hugging me like I’m your aunt or something.”

Sherlock huffed and John felt his arms tighten, just a little.

“Sorry to break this up, boys,” came a silken voice from beside them. “But some people have a competition to win.”

John huffed and pushed away from Sherlock, and was not in the least surprised to see the dark shape of Irene, standing there as if she had been sculpted, as usual.

“Break a leg,” John wished her, and didn’t entirely mean it in the theatrical way. He was still surprised by how much she unnerved him. She looked at him as if it were through him, and it was uncomfortable to say the least.

“Thank you, dear,” she replied with a flash of her teeth in the darkness. “Now both of you, shoo.”

“Hi, Sherlock,” piped up a small voice, and its owner leaned into view from behind Irene. “Hey, John,”

“Hello, Molly,” Sherlock replied, while John just gave her a smile before pulling Sherlock back into the auditorium.

They were covered by the loud chattering that erupted between songs as they sidled back into their seats with the rest of Doyle. As they sat down, the boys in the near vicinity grinned at them – actually, just Sherlock, John realised; and congratulated him enthusiastically, sincerely, and John felt a swell of pride surge like a tide in his chest.

As a hush fell as the stage lights did the same, the boys turned away from Sherlock again, and he settled back in his seat. He leaned down to slide his violin and bow under his chair, and when he straightened up again, John frowned at the sight of his friend’s hands as he folded them in his lap.

“You’re shaking,” he whispered, the first notes of a Sam Smith song started up on the stage.

“After effects of adrenaline,” Sherlock replied, scrutinising his face. After a moment, “You think it’s something else, obviously.”

John sighed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, I just – ”

“Don’t trust me,” Sherlock finished. John sighed. “I’m doing well, John. And besides, you made me make that stupid promise in the kitchen.”

John was taken aback. He had thought Sherlock had deleted that. Or had pushed it into the farthest corner of the attic of his mind palace at least.

“As I recall, you never actually promised anything,” he said after a pause.

Sherlock turned and looked at him in the way he did when something was mildly confusing, but before he could say anything, one of the upper sixth sitting in front of them turned around and irately shushed them.

Kay’s performance was slick but uneventful, no matter that Irene took centre stage, her hair down for once and moving like something fluid. However, John was glad that Molly looked like she was enjoying herself, and even more so to see Angelica up and mobile again.

The next performance was Green’s, and it lived up to the teaser John had been given in his maths lesson earlier that day. Hugely overdramatic and performed with comic solemnity, it had John simultaneously in stitches and singing along to the chorus with the rest of the school. Even Sherlock was laughing, and laughed even harder when John sang directly at him.

The last performance of the evening was given by the previous year’s winners, according to Mike. John was surprised to see Jeannette sit behind the drum set, realising he hadn’t even known which house she was in until that moment. Their song was soft and almost bittersweet, and it could have been the come-down after hours of nervousness, but by the second chorus, John could feel himself slowing down in the approach to sleep.

A look at Sherlock told him his friend was feeling the same thing. The coloured lights from the stage danced over his pensive features, and John stifled a yawn as the song ended to copious applause.

Minutes later, Doyle burst into the night, laughter echoing off the buildings into the arctic air that was making their breath cloud in front of them.

“I’ve got a good feeling, boys,” Lestrade was saying. “Those Funke girls don’t stand a chance.”

“Glad it’s done?” John asked Sherlock.

Sherlock shrugged. John laughed.

The warmth of Doyle felt heavenly on John’s exposed arms as the house piled inside.

“Boys! Boys!” Lestrade called as John moved to go into the common room. He turned around to see his housemaster standing a few steps up the staircase. The boys eventually settled down, looking up at him. “Just before you go to bed, I would like to thank you all for being so co-operative. You really made mine and Eddie’s lives easier, and thanks to your hard work, I think Funke will be kissing our arses come next week when the results are announced, if you’ll excuse my French,”

There were assorted shouts of ‘here, here!’ from the assembled.

“And I would like to give special mention, of course, to the musicians – and especial special mention to Sherlock bloody Holmes for scaring us all half to death by ignoring our instructions completely – lengthening the intro and strutting about like a cockerel, dear god.”

John laughed with the rest of the house, and put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Sherlock was smiling.

“However, I have to say,” Lestrade went on. “It was… weirdly effective, you great drama queen, so well done,” he finished, and John thought he heard a softness in his voice that was almost paternal – had Lestrade known about the stage fright?

“So, yes, well done everyone,” the man concluded. “And now it’s off to bed – no lie-in tomorrow, I’m afraid. The blessings of Saturday school, eh?”

The boys grumbled and began to disband, and John went to do the same when Eric grabbed him by the arm.

“Aren’t you coming?”

“Coming where?” John replied, confused.

“To Lestrade’s,” Eric said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “He always does this, a beer for the sixth form after a house event. Never announces it or anything, we just tip up and he happily provides.”

True to Eric’s words, when John entered Lestrade’s kitchen, the whole of the Doyle sixth form was gathered around his fridge.

“John, catch,” Mike instructed a split second before a bottle came flying through the air towards John’s face. He managed to catch it, just, and as he turned around to look for a bottle opener, Lestrade moved past him and handed one to him.

“I can’t believe this,” John commented to Eric. “If a teacher at my old school gave you alcohol, they’d be fired straight up.”

“Yeah, but you were underage at your old school,” Eric reasoned.

“We’re underage now!” John replied, and Eric cocked his head briefly as if to say fair point, and then moved off to find a bottle for himself.

John took a sip of his beer, and only then did he realise that there was a distinct lack of grumpy sarcasm in the room.

“Hey, John, where’s our consulting violinist?” Lestrade called over the hubbub, voicing John’s thoughts.

“I don’t know, sir, I thought he was right behind me.”

“Well, go find him,” Lestrade instructed, coming over and passing another bottle to him. “He’s due a beer for that crap he pulled this evening, I think.”

John found his friend rummaging in their own fridge in their room in his pyjamas.

“Hello, John,” he said without turning around.

“Are you coming down?” John asked, leaning against the door frame. “What are you looking for?”

“No, and something comestible,” Sherlock replied, huffing after a few seconds and straightening up, closing the door.

“Nothing?” John asked. Sherlock shook his head. “Good, because we wouldn’t want to spoil your appetite.”

“Appetite for what?”

“The Chinese takeaway Mike secretly ordered just before you rocked that assembly hall,” John replied. “By the way, do you have a tenner?”

“Probably,” Sherlock said after a befuddled pause, going to one of his desk drawers and drawing out his wallet. “Why?”

“We all have to put in eight pounds and I’ve only got five, and I was thinking if we pay together – ”

“I would make up the rest?” Sherlock assumed, handing John the note in spite of his tone.

“Sharing is caring,” John smiled, pocketing the money and holding out the untouched beer bottle in exchange.

“I don’t drink,” Sherlock dismissed.

John laughed wryly. “Oh, so you have a problem with alcohol but not with cocaine? That’s logical.”

“I just don’t really like the taste,” Sherlock said reasonably. “Plus, alcohol is like looking through clouded glass, it makes people stupid. I don’t do stupid.”

“Obviously not,” John said seriously. “But just take it, I don’t want to go back still holding two beers.”

Sherlock sighed and grabbed the bottle.

When John returned to the kitchen with Sherlock in dutiful tow, there was a smattering of only half-sarcastic applause, which Sherlock smiled tightly at.

“You – that crap you pulled this evening – I don’t know whether to kill you or kiss you,” Eddie said, almost breathless.

“Neither would be fantastic,” Sherlock said seriously, and there was a small flicker of his eyes that indicated surprise when the people around him laughed in response.

“It was purely self-serving,” John said. “If the attention’s on someone else, he gets all sulky.”

“You’re talking about me like I’m a toddler,” Sherlock said.

“You’re talking about him like he’s your bloody husband,” Mike said, coming up behind him. Under the cover of the expected ensuing laughter, he lowered his voice and said, “Come and help with the Chinese?”

John dragged Sherlock away with him and they followed Mike out of Lestrade’s house into the foyer and out of the front door onto the driveway.

“I don’t have any shoes on,” Sherlock complained.

“And whose fault is that?” John replied. “Go and stand on the doormat, you wuss.”

“Oh, do you have the money? I’ve got everyone else’s,” Mike asked. John handed him his and Sherlock’s shared sixteen pounds. “Sherlock, will you keep watch? Lestrade shouldn’t see anything as long as he doesn’t leave his house, so tell us if he does, yeah?”

Sherlock nodded and turned his back on them both so he could see inside.

“So,” Mike began in a tone that made John immediately suspicious. “Jeannette.”

“Oh, god, Mike, you’re like some sort of gossip-hungry agony aunt,” John grumbled. This did not earn anything more than a look from Mike, so John elaborated. “We’re not even properly seeing each other, we just text a bit.”

“She likes you, you know,” Mike said. “She asked me about you in psych the other day.”

John snorted. “What did you say?”

“All good things,” Mike replied, and John could have sworn his eyes flitted back to the doorway where Sherlock was silhouetted against the light coming from inside.

Just then, a pair of headlights rounded the corner in front of them and slowed down as the car approached them. A young man wearing a waiter’s uniform got out. “Did you order Chinese?”

John let Mike pay and load his arms up with plastic bags. Once they had all of the food, they walked back to the house.

“All clear, Sherlock?” Mike asked.

“Yes, all clear – can I go inside now?”

“Will you just quickly go back into Lestrade’s and tell the others to be upstairs within the next five minutes?” Mike said. “But make sure they don’t all leave at once.”

Sherlock grumbled something affirmative and strode back across the foyer and into Lestrade’s house as John and Mike stealthily made their way upstairs.

They sat on the floor in Mike’s room and arranged the various boxes of steaming noodles, prawn crackers, duck, sweet and sour, and other assorted dishes around them on the grubby carpet. One by one, the rest of the lower sixth trickled up, Sherlock first.

“Hope you’re hungry,” John said, smiling.

Sherlock said nothing, but dropped to the floor and reached for a pair of chopsticks.

When the last crumbs of the food were the only traces of their secret feast left, John decided it was time.

“You know, Sherlock’s never seen High School Musical,” he proclaimed, interrupting, but no one seemed to care as jaws dropped.

“Right,” Vlad said, getting to his feet. “My laptop’s got the biggest screen, wait here,” and then strode purposefully out of the room.

They began to clear away the empty boxes and bags.

“Even I’ve seen those movies, mate,” Glen said disapprovingly.

Sherlock sighed. “This is not necessary.”

“That’s what you think,” Eric replied.

By the time Vlad returned with his laptop, the room had been cleared and a couple of people had left to get more duvets and cushions. The laptop was placed precariously upon a pile of pillows and Sherlock and John settled on their stomachs in front of it, others behind them, some sitting with their backs against the door, some on the bunk beds looking down.

“John – ” Sherlock began.

“Shh,” his friend interjected as someone turned off the lights.

Chapter Text

John found himself looking at the sky.

The previous few seconds had been a rush of ball – body – earth, and now he was lying on the hard ground on his back. He was aware that the sounds of the game were moving swiftly away from him towards the goal St Bart’s was defending, but the rolling, roiling grey clouds above him seemed so very close that he could reach out and grab one, a concept that seemed more interesting than the game they were uncomfortably close to losing.

With a sigh, he forced himself to his feet.

As he jogged down the pitch, his eyes drifted to the spectators gathered on the sidelines, wrapped in coats and scarves and gloves against the weather that was fast becoming winter.  He thought he caught sight of a particular coat and scarf and pair of gloves, but on a second glance, the collar was flush against the shoulders, the scarf was a tad too vivid, the gloves were fleece.

“John!”

The shout came from in front of him, and plunged him straight back into the match as his hands immediately opened to catch the ball that spun through the air towards him.

***

They ended up winning the match – but only just. As the team disbanded after the concluding formalities and most moved towards the spectators, John followed the few others to their bags.

His gaze was drawn to the cluster of his teammates chatting with their friends, girlfriends, whoever, as he put his gum shield away. He watched them laugh, watched one of the girls lay a hand on the upper arm of one of the boys. He had brought up the subject of that match with Jeannette, hoping she would express an interest in coming to see him play, but she had simply replied with details of her own hockey match – miles away and ending late. So that had been the end of that. Even Mike had had some supporters show up, a few girls he had become friendly with, some other friends John knew, some he didn’t.

He turned back to his bag, grabbing his water bottle and turning his attention to the sky again as he gratefully swallowed down the icy liquid. It cleared his head a little. In his lessons recently his day dreams had been turning to the last Saturday of the term. In them, his family would somehow bother to come to Bart’s to pick him up, and would be just in time to see him play the final game of the season. His dad would have been so proud of him. He imagined the whistle blowing on their victory, imagined that shamelessly proud smile he had seen way too seldom on his father’s features. But it was useless to imagine such things, he told himself, for obvious reasons. He had thought about inviting Sherlock to see him play, but the look on his hypothetical friend’s face when his hypothetical self had asked had been enough to make John cross that option off the list entirely.

“Whew, that was close, eh?”

The voice startled him out of his head. It belonged to Mike as he bounded over to John and began rooting in his bag.

“Eh, I had it covered,” John joked, and Mike rolled his eyes.

“You had any more thoughts about house art?”

John drew his hoodie from his bag and shoved his arms into it. “Not really,” he said, his voice muffled as he pulled the clothing over his head. “I’ve still got time.”

“You’ve got tomorrow,” Mike replied. “And basically nobody else from house is entering, so you’re kind of our only hope, mate.”

“No pressure, then,” John said dryly. “Um, by basically nobody, you mean…?”

Mike replied with a few names, but the list was worryingly short. John cursed and sighed. “I’d better get to it, then, hadn’t I?”

***

“Hey, Sherlock, can I draw you?”

Sherlock turned to the door. His friend was standing on the threshold, rugby boots in one hand and a sports bag in the other.

“It’ll have to be tomorrow, though, the light’s pretty much gone.”

Sherlock frowned.

***

“The other day, I was thinking about Nadia and Muhammad and their little code thing,” John said, the suddenness of his voice in the soft quiet making Sherlock open his eyes.

He hummed a reply that he hoped would mean ‘go on’, ‘I remember’ and ‘what about them?’ all at once, conscious of the fact that he couldn’t move an inch, not even to speak, lest John’s proportions be thrown off.

“I was thinking maybe we should have something like that,” John continued, and Sherlock looked down at him.

John was focussed on the paper in front of him. The setting sun was threading itself through his hair, his head bent towards his knees where the drawing was taking shape balanced on a textbook there. He was making a tiny alteration to a line, and Sherlock could see his forehead crease as he made a small sound of frustration. After a moment, he must have felt Sherlock’s eyes on him, because he looked up, with such an open, mild, inquiring expression that for some reason Sherlock had to look away.

“What?” John asked. “It makes sense. The amount of shit I’ve got into because of you – and I’ve only known you four months – ”

“Three,” Sherlock corrected automatically.

“Basically four,” John replied dismissively. “Anyway, I can only imagine what scrapes you’re going to put me in in the future, so I thought it would be pragmatic.”

In the future.

It was said so casually, but it put a concept in Sherlock’s head that had never dared appear there before.

He had noticed recently that when he made plans for the immediate future – two days from now, next week, Sunday; pinning notes and tacking bits of paper to the wall of the boot room of his mind palace, there had been a growing presence just behind him. He would hear footsteps come in and stop inside the doorway, and it was neither uncomfortable nor entirely comfortable. Of course, Sherlock knew who it was – there were only so many people allowed inside the building, and only so many with such a thoughtful gait. But he hadn’t yet gathered the gall to turn around and face his friend.

But John hadn’t meant two days from now, next week, Sunday. He had meant two months from now, next year, summer. And he had said it as if it was the most certain thing in the world, that Sherlock would still be dragging him into peril all the way through their A-Levels – beyond that, Sherlock truly didn’t allow himself to think. So certain that it would, indeed, be pragmatic for them to have some sort of mayday known only to themselves. So certain it was as if Sherlock had no choice in the matter – which, he realised with surprising ease, I don’t. If John had, for reasons unknown to Sherlock, persisted in seeming to like him for (basically) four months, Sherlock was finding it difficult to see why John wouldn’t think that they would still be… amicable in the vague and undefined ‘future’.

Sherlock himself could think of plenty of reasons, of course, and they were all through no fault of his faultless friend.

“Sherlock?” John was saying. “Hellooo?”

Sherlock swallowed. “Mm.”

“Do you know you do that?”

Sherlock creased his eyebrows in query.

“You just… disappear sometimes,” John elaborated, looking back down to his paper again and sketching a large curve. “It’s like you can’t hear me or see me or anything.”

In truth, Sherlock did know. He had spent so many nights sitting within himself, mind on the stairs of his palace, body on the stairs of his home, while people downstairs pointedly refused to shout. It had begun as something voluntary, but at some point, it had stopped being completely under his control. Around the time his father left and Mycroft began needing those little pastel pills, he thought.

“I don’t blame you,” John was continuing. “You must be really bored, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Sherlock said, not being able to keep silent for any longer.

“Ah, he speaks!” John said teasingly. Sherlock rolled his eyes, making his friend chuckle. “For such a fidget, I’m surprised you’ve been able to keep still this long.”

“It’s only been ten minutes,” Sherlock replied.

John looked up, looking at him strangely. “It’s been an hour and a half…” Sherlock raised his wrist to check his watch, but John swatted at his arm. “Hey, don’t move,” he chided.

Sherlock looked closer at John’s drawing and realised it was different to the one he had been in the process of however long ago ten minutes actually was. John noticed him looking.

“I’ve already done two of them,” he explained. “Well, nearly. I’ll polish them later. This is the third.”

Sherlock nodded once and uncrossed his legs, stretching them.

“Do you want a break?” John asked, and then, without waiting for a reply; “I want a break. Get up.”

“Can I see what you’ve already done?” Sherlock asked, standing and feeling each vertebra in his spine click.

“No,” John said, quickly drawing the sketch pad out of Sherlock’s reach. “I’ll show you when they’re done.”

They both stood for a moment, looking out of the window at the setting sun.

“We’re going to have to turn some lights on soon,” John mused. “Do you want something to eat? I kind of fancy some toast…”

Sherlock followed John out of the room and down the stairs. In the common room, some of the upper sixth were playing snooker – not entirely abiding by the rules, Sherlock suspected, if the boy lying on the table trying to obstruct the path of the balls was anything to go by – and a year ten was microwaving something foul-smelling.

The house went on as usual; always. That was something, at least.

Sherlock sat on top of the counter and watched John out of the corner of his eye while he searched for bread and butter and condiments and all kinds of other things Sherlock paid little heed to.

“You’re not very talkative this evening,” John said, putting two slices of bread in the toaster.

Sherlock leaned over to the sink, took a cup off the sideboard and filled it with water. “Tired,” he said, taking a sip.

“You going to pour me one?” John said after a pause, and Sherlock huffed and complied.

They took their toast upstairs and Sherlock sat on the floor while John fiddled with his laptop. He couldn’t remember when he’d given John his password, or allowed him to use the machine without asking, but he supposed he must have done. He was preoccupied with trying not to eat while scrolling through the local news’ website on his phone when some drums started up.

He looked up to find John with a mouthful of toast bobbing his head to the music.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock asked.

“Putting some music on,” John replied as if Sherlock was stupid. “It’s going to be a long night.”

Sherlock heaved a sigh and got up, going over to the laptop and pausing the music before anyone could sing. “We are not listening to that. I am not listening to that.” He brought up his iTunes and found an album, pressed play, and sat back down again, going back to scrolling through the news.

John stood, finishing off his toast. After a few seconds, he commented, “This is nice. Do you only listen to classical stuff?”

“Mainly. Lyrics are distracting.” Sherlock replied. “Plus Mycroft went through a punk phase when he was my age and that is something I do not want becoming a family tradition.”

Sherlock looked up when he heard John begin to laugh. It was the kind of laugh he did when he was surprised by a funny anecdote. Different to his just-surprised laugh. Which was different to his laughs – plural – for non-surprising funny anecdotes, which were different to his laughs for funny situations.

Sherlock had considered making a spreadsheet to keep track, but in the end he’d found he didn’t need to.

“Anyway,” John said once he caught his breath back. “The light’s going to go, so can we get back to it?”

“Mhm,” Sherlock replied through his last mouthful of toast. “What do you need?”

John made a thinking sound and rubbed his neck, head cocked to once side. “I’m not sure. I was doing, uh, your neck, but I don’t like the way it’s turning out…”

Sherlock wasn’t sure what to do with that information, that John’s gaze had been fixated on his neck for an undetermined amount of time while Sherlock was elsewhere, so he put it in a box by the back door for further consideration at a later date.

John was looking at what was, presumably, the offending drawing, holding it in such a way that Sherlock couldn’t see it. “No,” he said finally. “I don’t like it, it can go.” He went to tear out the drawing, but paused, and simply flipped the page over instead.

“So. What now?” Sherlock asked.

“Hm. Maybe…” John began, flipping a couple of pages back to look at them. “Yeah – maybe… would you mind taking your socks off?”

Sherlock complied, and was suddenly quite aware of his probably-too-long toenails, and the dry skin on his soles, and the sporadic strands of hair dotted about, while John positioned him so he ended up sitting atop the fridge with one foot on the windowsill to catch the last few rays of sun. John pulled a chair next to the fridge, laying his notepad on the machine, and started sketching.

Sherlock drew his other leg up to his chest and rested his chin on his knee.

For lack of anything else to do, Sherlock imagined a stranger looking in upon their room. A room with a bare door save the number twenty one in the corner. A room with assorted items of clothing, pieces of paper, books, shoes, bags, and god knew what else discarded on the floor. One bed’s dark sheets perfectly made, the other with the navy duvet scrunched up at one end, its owner having lain in that morning until he had had two minutes to leave the house until both inhabitants were going to be late for church. One desk neatly tidied, books in subject order and objects piled with intention, while the one opposite was barely visible under various Petri dishes and chemicals and scientific equipment and notebooks and infinite other trinkets, the importance of which came and went. One large black coat draped over the back of a chair, one pair of army boots tucked underneath the one opposite, one violin, one skull, two boys. One sitting, curled up, all angles and edges, on top of a mini fridge, the other putting all of those angles and edges onto paper. Two boys, some classical music, a pad of paper, and the smell of toast still lingering as the newest among those of deodorant, ash, and bulk-bought laundry powder.

After a while, John staring at Sherlock’s foot began to feel a little less odd.

The draining light painted John’s skin golden and made his sandy hair burn at its split ends.

Sherlock watched his friend’s hands. His nails were short, bitten so; flat pads at the ends of his fingers. Small, but not delicate. Sturdy, the kind children like to hold. Sherlock remembered John’s mother’s hands, and his sister’s – inferred that he had inherited those hands from his father. He watched the pencil twist in those fingers, change angles and grips. A thought surfaced; his hands would smell like graphite and wood.

Sherlock found himself drawing the curtains in the living room of his mind palace.

“When’d you get in?” came a voice from the doorway.

“Not sure,” Sherlock replied, turning around to face John, who had his hands in his pockets and was leaning against the doorjamb.

“D’you want a cuppa?”

“Please.”

John smiled at him and turned around, heading, Sherlock presumed, to the kitchen, which was where he spent a lot of his time. Sherlock felt sort of… bad about that. He supposed it was his fault, and not John’s responsibility, but there wasn’t much he could do.

When John returned, Sherlock was lying on the worn leather sofa, half-dozing. His friend plucked one arm off his chest and placed the hot mug into his palm, and Sherlock heard him sit in one of the nearby chairs and pick up a newspaper. Sherlock opened his eyes and sat up a little to drink, and his eye was caught by the pink paper John held in front of him, obscuring his face.

“Why are you reading the Financial Times?”

Mycroft put the paper down in his lap. “Don’t fall asleep, Sherlock.”

A different song was playing now; the album Sherlock had put on earlier must have ended.

“Did you change the music?” Sherlock asked John, who was a lot further on with his drawing – Sherlock realised he must have been gone again, and for some time.

“Your album ended, and you weren’t responding again, so I just…” John shrugged. “Put something else on. Spotify. I didn’t log you out, though. You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, but I don’t like this song,” Sherlock replied, and John laughed.

“It’ll change in a minute,” he placated. “Have you never heard this guy before?”

“No.”

“He’s very big at the moment,” John said, and began to tell Sherlock things he had never asked to know about a musician he had never heard of, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to delete any of it.

“Ugh, okay,” John said, after he had relapsed back into silence again for a few minutes. “I’m done with this one, it’s good enough for now.”

He stood up and stretched, and Sherlock took that as permission for him to do the same. He grabbed his half-full cup of water from his desk.

“Thank you for being so patient, Sherlock,” John said.

“Mm,” Sherlock replied vaguely as he drank.

“Seriously,” John continued. “I shouldn’t have left it this late and you shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of my procrasti-”

“Oh, John, do shut up,” Sherlock said before he could stop himself, and could only hope his friend didn’t take it the wrong way. He risked a glance at the other boy, who was eyeing him somewhat suspiciously. “What I meant by that was that your apologies are unnecessary,” Sherlock tried.

“Nice save,” John said, and Sherlock knew he wasn’t entirely convinced, but also knew that, somehow, it was okay.

“So, last panel?” Sherlock prompted.

“Mm, yes,” John replied, and there appeared a small crease between his eyebrows, but before Sherlock could try to understand it, John was turning away and flicking on the lights. When he turned back, his expression was careful, and for once Sherlock couldn’t read him, so when the request came, it was a little surprising. “This is going to sound a little strange, but I need you to – well, would you mind, uh, taking your top off?”

Sherlock put his cup down.

He was quite suddenly aware of the air between them.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to, tell me if I’m being – ” John was saying, his words coming thick and fast.

“It’s fine,” Sherlock interrupted him, because it was – fine, it was fine.

It wasn’t cold in their room, but as he pulled the t-shirt over his head, he had to fight the urge to shiver.

“Thanks,” John said, then passed a hand over his face. “God, this is going to sound weird… right: could you lie on your back on top of the fridge?”

Sherlock must have narrowed his eyes or something of the like, because John continued, explaining.

“I know it’s really small, but if you open the window you can dangle your legs out, and I kind of need you hanging over the edge a bit anyway,”

“Um, sure…” Sherlock found himself saying, two filler words which he absolutely abhorred, but somehow nothing else would come out.

He sat on the top of the fridge and swivelled so he was facing the window, then slowly began to lean back while shuffling a bit so his feet ended up sticking out of the window and his head and shoulders were hanging in the air. He lowered himself down, feeling the cool plastic of the fridge against his skin. He felt every muscle in his back stretching as he stopped consciously supporting the weight of his upper torso and head. His blood began to rush to his head, and he felt his hair dangling away from his head. He let his weight pull him the last few inches, made himself comfortable, and opened his eyes, not really being sure when he’d closed them. He was presented with a view of John’s face – upside down, of course.

His friend was sitting on the floor a couple of feet away from him, sketchpad in his lap. He seemed to be concentrating, hands slightly raised over the paper as if working out proportions and spacing in his head. He made a small sound and got up, flicking the main lights off and fiddling with something on his own desk that Sherlock couldn’t quite see from his angle.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to get our lamps onto the floor.”

“I’ve got an extension lead in the top drawer of my desk.”

“Thanks.”

John quickly found it and hooked the small desk lamps up to it, and then began positioning them rather close to Sherlock’s head, one on the left and one on the right.

Sherlock watched his friend’s upside-down face, neutral in concentration, his eyes intense blue to match the intense light that almost seemed, from Sherlock’s vantage point, to be coming from his hands.

“You okay?” John said.

“Fine,” replied Sherlock.

“Just with, you know, all your blood rushing to your head,” John continued, and Sherlock could feel the air around him move with his friend’s speech.

“I’ll fidget less if I faint,” Sherlock said, and John huffed a laugh.

“’Kay,” John said to himself, seemingly finished with fiddling with the lamps. “Is this too close?”

For a moment, Sherlock thought he was referring to his physical proximity (if Sherlock blew as if trying to extinguish a candle, John’s hair would have lifted off his forehead) and answered before realising his mistake.

“No.”

He went to correct himself, but realised the two answers had turned out to be the same.

He felt as if he’d tripped over.

“Don’t want to set your hair on fire, that’s all,” John was saying, finally sitting back.

Sherlock pushed the previous few seconds out of his mind. The lamps’ warmth on his scalp was rather on the hot side of pleasant, but Sherlock trusted John to not do anything risky.

The building pressure in his head from all of the blood rushing to it was making his face feel swollen.

“John,” Sherlock said, just as John put his pencil to the paper.

“Mm?” John replied.

“Can I have a pillow?”

“Yeah, of course,” John said, getting up again and fetching one. “For under your back?”

“Thanks,” Sherlock said, sitting up and allowing John to slide the pillow onto the top of the fridge. Sherlock heard his friend settling back on the floor as he leaned backwards, assuming his earlier position. The blood rushed back to his head, the muscles in his back stretched, his hair fell off his forehead, and John began to sketch.

The temperature in their room was beginning to drop as the open window allowed the light breeze outside to bluster in. His hands, where they rested lightly holding his forearms, felt goose bumps rise under them.

Time passed in its regular fashion for – as far as Sherlock could tell – he didn’t think he’d gone away but he could never be sure – around fifteen minutes before John spoke.

“How long can a person stay upside down before they die?”

Sherlock snorted. “I’m not going to die, John.”

“I know, I’m just talking.”

Sherlock smiled while John was looking at the paper.

“About a day, twenty-four hours. But you’d pass out after twelve.” He replied. He watched John’s eyes flick between the paper and his body for a bit, the feeling of his friend’s eyes on his bare chest no longer as exposing as it had been when he had first undressed.

He had seen John in all sorts of states of undress before – he seemed to have very little self-consciousness when changing in recent weeks. When they had first met, changing in front of each other had been a little awkward, but now John had no reservations about wandering about topless, the same as the other boys. Sherlock himself had never really been one for all that, and he rarely changed clothes in front of John anyway, but the one time John had walked in on him half-naked had pleasantly surprised him.

He had been putting on his school uniform one morning while John was in the shower, and his friend had returned to their room earlier than usual. Sherlock was in his trousers, but was rummaging in his cupboard for a shirt when the door had banged open.

“Fucking year tens,” John said as he walked in. “I was happily showering away when I hear all these little feet like a stampede of baby elephants and then, like, three hundred of them flooded into the bathroom.”

Sherlock had jumped out of his skin when he heard the door open and had turned his back to the rest of the room, trying to subtly burrow into the clothes hanging in the wardrobe.

“And then, if that wasn’t enough, you know what they did? Guess what those little bastards did.”

Sherlock cursed silently. He was now obliged to face John, as the other boy had engaged him in conversation. Sherlock put an arm in a sleeve and turned around.

“What?” he asked, putting his other arm through the other sleeve and trying not to button the shirt too hastily.

And John, thank you thank you thank you, looked him straight in the eye, as if this were perfectly normal, as if he’d seen Sherlock’s bare chest before, and continued his rant about the year tens playing some sort of music that John didn’t like ‘much too loudly for seven in the morning’, forcing John to cut his shower short.

And, Sherlock supposed, it was perfectly normal. Most of the other boys had seen each other’s genitals, by the sounds of some of the stories they told each other, so Sherlock doubted John saw anything out of the ordinary in carrying on a conversation with a half-naked person. Afterwards, Sherlock thought for a while about why he was so uptight about his own nudity.

He blamed Mycroft by default.

“What are you drawing?”

John furrowed his eyebrows. “You,” he said, as if it was obvious.

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Obviously. I meant which bit of me?”

“Oh,” John said. “Well, the underside of your chin and your neck and a bit of your chest. I mean, if that’s okay? Because if you’re not okay with it I don’t have to – ”

“John, it’s fine,” Sherlock interrupted. And it was.

They went back to silence for a while. Sherlock watched John. His breathing rate had slowed right down, so much so that Sherlock wondered whether he was holding it. In fact, he was certain he was, at points – when he was drawing a particularly delicate or precise line, Sherlock imagined. His eyes were almost black in the night that was rapidly spilling through their window, the sun having disappeared below the horizon about half an hour ago.

“But that’s only if you’re completely vertical.”

“What?” John said.

“Death after twenty four hours, unconsciousness after twelve; that only applies if you’re, for example, hanging from your ankles or something like that.”

“Oh, right,” John replied.

“Haemorrhaging of the blood vessels in the brain would lead to multiple strokes.”

“Thanks,” John said, somewhat sarcastically.

“No problem,” Sherlock replied, in the same tone. Then, “There was a man who hung upside down for three days in 2008.”

“Did he die?”

“No,” Sherlock replied. “But he did have breaks every hour.”

“Ah, doesn’t count then,” John said seriously, before catching Sherlock’s eye and grinning.

Sherlock could feel himself grinning back. He was always astounded by John’s ability to make him smile. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with it. It was disarming.

“How’re you feeling?”

“Uncomfortable.”

“Do you want a break?”

“A bit.”

“Then we’ll have a break.”

Sherlock sat up, slid off the fridge, and immediately regretted it, feeling as if he were about to faint, swaying, vision whitening. He must have groaned, because there was a firm hand on his arm and another on his shoulder and a voice asking him what was wrong.

“Orthostatic hypotension,” Sherlock mumbled.

“And what’s that when it’s at home?”

“Head rush,” Sherlock explained.

The hand on his shoulder squeezed reassuringly. He could feel the skin of John’s wrist just below his collarbone, warm against Sherlock’s wind-chilled chest.

The feeling had passed but he kept his eyes closed for a couple of seconds more. Just to be safe. When he did blink them open, John’s face radiated concern and patience.

“You good?”

“Stop fussing,” Sherlock said, and John laughed and let go of him. “Honestly, the things you put me through…”

“The things I put you through?”

They bickered for a bit, and Sherlock soon forgot that he was only wearing a pair of pyjama bottoms, the cool air no longer feeling like paint stripper on his skin in its foreignness.

When he lay back down on the fridge, it was for the last time that evening. He was glad to put his shirt back on when John finally finished with the drawing, but only because, he was pleasantly surprised to realise, he had become really rather chilly.

Despite Sherlock’s best manipulative strategies, John refused to let Sherlock see the drawings, and locked his sketchpad in his safe before getting into bed. Sherlock thought that a bit ludicrous – he wasn’t that desperate. But he found himself contemplating how to acquire the key that was hanging around his friend’s neck as he slept while his mind wandered away from the chemistry lab report he was trying to finish.

He went to play some music, and found the album that John had played earlier still open on Sherlock’s Spotify. He hovered over one of his own playlists, but eventually clicked on the first track of the album. He still didn’t like it much, so he skipped through a few, but when he finished his report, he waited for the song that was playing to finish before he closed his laptop and climbing into bed.

***

The morning assembly was dragging.

John had been almost dozing in his seat when the Head Master invited the head of the music department to the podium, but upon hearing those words, he snapped wide awake, and he could feel the school around him doing the same.

The man began by congratulating and thanking the houses for their ‘lively’ performances, and he seemed to be making his introduction as long as he possibly could – John heard someone in front of him mutter, “Come on, man…”

Finally: “Now, to the winners.”

John sat up a little straighter, and saw Sherlock’s hands twisting in his lap out of the corner of his eye.

“As most of you will know, we have three categories, then an overall winner. So; best choreography. This was a difficult decision that came down to Golding’s hips, Rowling’s karate or Frank’s powerwalking, but in the end the prize will have to go to Rowling for Kung Fu Fighting.”

At this, there was an explosion of high-pitched screaming from the back of the hall, presumably from Rowling. Their head walked to the front and collected a small trophy, the rest of the school clapping obediently.

“I think Golding should have got that,” John whispered to Mike, who was sitting on his left.

“I know you do,” Mike said in a tone of voice John couldn’t exactly work out. Before he could question the boy, however, the head of the music department started speaking again.

“Best costume now. I think it’s fair to say there was a clear winner here, but we must also give mention to Pullman for their impeccable Elvis quiffs. However, congratulations and kudos to the boys who bared their legs for us all; Dickens with All in This Together and those very short skirt.”

Dickens’ celebration was a little more masculine than necessary, John thought, as their head of house collected their trophy.

“Thirdly, best vocal technicality. We understand not all of you can be gospel choristers, but there was one house which really went for it in terms of ambitious harmonies and some difficult long notes, and in the end managed to maintain a high level of ability throughout. Commiserations to Kay, whose rendition of Restart came a very close second, but the winner was Tolkein with Give me Love.”

“I swear that, like, half their house is in the choir, though,” Mike grumbled as the head of Tolkein went to collect their award. John shrugged.

As the clapping began to die down, John felt his heart begin to thump.

“Here we go,” he said to Sherlock under his breath.

“Now, finally, the overall winner. This year’s was perhaps the toughest competition I’ve had to judge and, honestly, you could present a very compelling argument for every house to win. However, after much deliberation, the other judges and I whittled the choices down to our top three. If we could have the three heads of houses come up after all the winners have been called, that would be most efficient. Right. So, in third place, for a surprising unearthing of trumpet prowess and genuinely making me want to dance, Collins, with Mambo Number Five.”

The clapping that ensued seemed to go on forever, and, for Sherlock’s sake, John wished the whole ordeal would hurry up and be over with.

“Second place goes to a house who wowed us last year and this year were almost as technically perfect as our winner. Their performance built beautifully, and that performance was Funke with Sewn.”

Along with the clapping, John heard an undercurrent of murmuring, and he remembered Mike telling him of their victory in the previous year’s competition.

“Now for first place. We had our eye on this house last year, as we knew they had a good handful of very competent musicians, but unfortunately they didn’t quite make the top three. This year, we wondered how they were going to fair, and we were given quite a show.”

John glanced at Mike, who raised his eyebrows.

“This performance was wonderfully dramatic, and it felt well-rehearsed and well-polished. The singing was well-enunciated and strong, the costumes were spot on, and our congratulations go to their head for their vision.”

John risked a look at Eddie, who was sitting a few seats down from him. The boy was white as a sheet.

“Special mention must go to one of their pupils who… well, you’ll know who they are. All I’ll say is that we hope to see more of them in our neck of the woods from now on.”

John grinned at Sherlock, but the gesture wasn’t returned – John wasn’t even sure if his friend had noticed.

“So, without further ado, the winner of this year’s house music competition is…” The man paused for effect, and John saw Lestrade rub his hand over his mouth.

It felt as if that pause stretched, and stretched, and stretched.

John was fairly certain Sherlock had stopped breathing.

“…Doyle, with Come On Eileen.”

John exhaled, and his next breath joined in with the cheers of his housemates. He saw Eddie shakily get to his feet and begin walking to the stage, following the heads of Collins and Funke, the latter of whom looked more than a little miffed to have been usurped from their throne by such an underdog.

Eddie almost tumbled up the stairs of the stage in his eagerness, and John watched as he shook hands vigorously with the head of music, who then handed him a larger trophy in the shape of a treble clef. As the boy took it in his hands, Doyle’s cheers doubled in strength, and the smile that burst on his face was so pure and joyful that John even saw Sherlock’s mouth twitch in response.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself,” John said to his friend. “That was you that won that for us.”

Sherlock scoffed and looked away, but after a moment, his eyes flicked back to John and he seemed to be fighting back a smile.

***

During his free period that morning, John carefully tore the four pages that made up his house art entry out of his sketchbook and laid them on the floor of room twenty-one.

They needed a little fine-tuning, then setting somehow. Then, of course, he had to work out how to arrange them and then stick them together somehow… all before the deadline of six thirty that evening.

John sighed.

***

“How’s the art coming along?” Mike asked John as the pair walked down to the rugby pitch together that afternoon.

“Fine, fine,” John replied. Mike raised an eyebrow at him, so he reluctantly continued, “I’m just about finished with mine – ”

“And by that you mean…?” his friend interrupted.

“I’ve just got to set them and then I’m done, chill out.”

“Them?”

“Yeah – different panels, if you like.” Mike nodded in understanding. “I’ve got to bring it to the art block before dinner, so I’ll have a nosey at the competition and report back.”

“Sounds good,” Mike said. “Oh, hey, you’re playing in house rugby, right?”

“House rugby?” John repeated. “How many fucking house competitions can you have?”

Mike shrugged. “It’s the last one before the Christmas holidays, don’t worry.”

“Oh, that’s alright then,” John said sarcastically. “But yeah, I’ll play. Do you think we stand a good chance?”

The two talked about the technicalities of the upcoming competition until they reached the rugby pitch, where they abandoned the conversation in favour of warming up for the practise.

***

An hour later, they were well into a mock game, John trying his hardest to perfect the new strategy their coach had introduced, his progress slow as he tried to wrap his brain around it.

Sherlock was watching as his friend jogged slowly up the pitch, following the action, his shoulders tense in concentration.

He had previously thought that rugby was a mindless game, for thugs and brutes with more muscles than sense, but watching John play, seeing so much of his friend in those calculated movements, the dodges, the quick flicks of the hands making the ball spin so precisely, the shouts of encouragement – he was beginning to rethink.

He turned his attention away from the window that looked onto the rugby pitch and went back to scanning the spines of the books nestled in their shelves. He had already been in the library for most of the afternoon, needing a change of scenery from his and John’s room. His scouring of the internet for substances with amnesiac potencies had been half-hearted at best, but the case of the girl in the san, Angelica, of the week before, was still niggling away in a corner of his mind. If could, of course, have had some genetic or biological cause, but something about it had felt very wrong.

When in doubt, go to the library. His brother’s old mantra, his only piece of advice when Sherlock had left home for Bart’s at thirteen, with too much hair and not enough people to care about.

On his first night, Sherlock had been unable to sleep. That had been unusual for him, back then – at home, when he was smaller, all he had needed to drop off was a dense scientific text of some kind. After his mother’s death, he had begun to shun sleep, preferring to stay up, wondering how far he could push himself, his brain – his experiments became more and more risky, deep purple bags appeared under his eyes. Then, at school, he would have given anything to have fallen asleep at ten and not wake until the rising bell – at least when he was dreaming, he wasn’t in that draughty old dormitory listening to the sleeping breaths of boys he barely knew, let alone felt any kinship with.

So, on that first night, he slipped out of bed, out of the house, out – into the night. He picked the lock of the library door – a job which would take him seconds now, but then, his fingers were almost numb by the time he stepped over the threshold.

He had wandered through the building for hours, breathing in the smell of the books, of the wood polish, of the dust in the corners. Using his phone as a torch, he had sat on a table, an old book of poetry in his lap, into the early hours, until the words swam before his eyes.

The attic had replaced the library for many years, but every so often he returned when he was out of ideas.

There was an eruption of noise from outside, and Sherlock stood on his tiptoes to see out of the window again.

There was a huddle of boys clustered together, seemingly concentrating on a particular patch of grass. They appeared to be talking over one another, glancing at each other every now and again. Sherlock was about to turn away when their coach jogged over. He pushed through the crowd, which parted just long enough to let him through and for Sherlock to see the form of a boy lying on the grass, before the circle closed up again.

The form of the boy on the grass had had blond hair.

Sherlock felt as if he’d been winded.

He lowered his weight off his toes, feet flat on the floor.

Skin, sock, shoe.

His hand was still resting on the cool stone of the windowsill and he retracted it quickly. He stood for a moment, breathing slowly.

You’re being stupid, he told himself. Even if it is him, he’s probably just twisted his ankle or something, he’s had worse.

But all the same, all the same…

Before he had even made a decision, Sherlock swept the books he had been considering off the shelf and strode to the front desk. He tapped his foot impatiently as the librarian scanned them (he was sure she was going slower than usual, probably still grouchy about those two-year overdue books that he had only just returned), and as soon as she was finished, he grabbed them and left the building.

He turned left out of the door, and walked down the path that ran alongside the library’s exterior and bordered on the rugby pitch. As he grew nearer to the cluster of boys, he realised he was clutching the books to his chest, and he forced himself to relax, holding them down by his side.

And then he was in earshot.

“John? John?” the coach was saying. “John, can you hear me?”

Sherlock felt a burst of adrenaline surge into his blood, and he had to force himself not to run.

As he pushed through the circle of boys, the coach was helping John sit up.

He looked awful – there was mud streaked down his back, and he was pale. He seemed a little dazed, blinking slowly.

“John, how are you feeling?” the coach was saying.

John looked at him for a moment, then – “What?”

“Concussion.”

The assembled turned to look at Sherlock. The coach was looking at him strangely. Had he said something? He must have done, but he wasn’t sure which of the thoughts flying through his synapses had –

“I agree. He should go to the san,” the man said, and – John was concussed, that must have been what I said, okay –

John turned his head and noticed Sherlock. He smiled. “Oh, hi, Sherlock, what’re you doing here?”

“I’m here to take you to the san,” Sherlock replied after a moment, not even bothering with trying to smile back.

“I wasn’t expecting an escort, but if you insist,” John said, and Sherlock felt like laughing in relief – as long as John was making jokes, the world was still just about alright.

John began to struggle to his feet, and Sherlock suddenly realised he should help in some manner – he offered out his free hand, which John gripped tighter than he was expecting. With the help of the coach, the boy stood, and wrapped an arm around Sherlock’s neck, Sherlock’s own finding John’s waist.

The crowd parted to let them through, with some words about hoping for John’s wellbeing that Sherlock didn’t listen to.

The walk to the san was quiet, for the most part.

“How’re you feeling?”

“Tipsy,” John said, and Sherlock’s mouth twisted in a smile.

Sherlock could feel John recovering, as his steps grew surer and the weight around Sherlock’s neck grew lighter. But the arm remained, as did Sherlock’s.

“What happened?”

“Someone tackled me too hard, and I must have hit my head on the ground as I fell. I wasn’t even holding the ball at the time, I had just passed it.”

“Do you know who it was?”

“No,” John replied, sighing. “I think I passed out for a few seconds after I hit my head – I felt someone slam into me, and the next thing I knew, I was lying on my back with all these people looking down at me.”

“Hmm,” Sherlock hummed, thinking.

Hmm indeed,” John said, then they fell back into silence.

Angelo, Sherlock thought, and he knew John was thinking it as well.

By the time they reached the san’s door, John could easily have walked on his own, but neither boy had made a move to disentangle themselves. Sherlock could feel the slight curve of John’s waist under his hand.

Skin, shirt, skin.

The man at the desk was bald and middle-aged, and seemed more grumpy that John wouldn’t’ be able to do his shift at the san that afternoon than worried about him, which made Sherlock feel itchy with annoyance.

He took John into a room to do a couple of checks, telling Sherlock to sit on a pew and wait. The sudden space on the left side of his body felt foreign.

He realised he was still gripping the books he had taken out of the library. He opened one of them, the spine creaking. He looked at the front page. The book had last been taken out in 2002, by an M Holmes.

Sherlock smiled.

John was fine, the concussion having basically faded within the next hour. He was a little put out that he couldn’t finish his rugby practise, but other than that –

“I’m right as rain, stop fussing.”

“I’m just not sure that running is the best idea,” Sherlock insisted.

“Yeah, but I need setting spray,” John repeated for what must have been the hundredth time in the last two minutes.

“You should have thought of this earlier,” Sherlock grumbled. John had been struck by an idea on the walk back to Doyle from the san and had dragged Sherlock into the art block with him while he found some charcoal. Once had had got back to their room, he had put his headphones in and not spoken for forty minutes as he went over certain areas of his piece for the house art competition, which he was still not allowing Sherlock to see. And now he needed to set it, and for that he needed to go back to the art block for setting spray.

John grinned, obviously taking that for consent. “I’ll be back in a few,” he said, leaving the room. Just before the door closed, he poked his head back in and warned, “Don’t look. I’ll know if you have.”

“Bye, John,” he said.

He was incredibly tempted to overturn the piece that was currently laying face-down on John’s bed. To distract himself, he got to reading through the books he’d taken out. He started with the one his brother had read, but found relatively little that would help him. The second book was more useful, however; it got him thinking about the method of administration of this mystery substance.

He was considering the viability of various oral methods when John returned.

“Got it,” he announced triumphantly as he walked in, holding an aerosol can in his hand.

“Mm,” Sherlock hummed absently. In her toothpaste? But she would have swallowed barely any of it…

“Sherlock,” John said softly.

“Mhm?” Sherlock replied, still thinking. What motive would someone have to give her amnesia, though? That’s assuming it was a malicious attack. More questioning needed.

“You can look now, if you like.”

His friend’s voice, almost shy, brought him back to room twenty one.

Sherlock got up and walked up to John. He was crouched on the floor, can in hand, looking at the piece laid before him. Sherlock moved his eyes onto the paper.

He crouched down as John began to spray the piece, wanting to look closer at the pencil strokes and the smudges of charcoal.

The four panels were all portrait and arranged in a rectangle, like a child’s drawing of a window. They were separate from each other by about an inch, linked by single strands of string that were stuck precisely in the middle of, Sherlock presumed, the backs of the pieces of paper.

“What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful, John.”

A hand with the fingers flexed, flowing down into the smooth plane of a wrist; a foot, its lumps and bumps highlighted by the deep shadows they cast; the shell of an ear and the curls around it; the expanse of an upturned chin, the knot of an Adam’s apple, the branching of the collar bones and the suggestion of the chest.

Sherlock could feel John’s eyes on the side of his head. He turned and looked at his friend, at his eyes, blue at this distance.

Sherlock hoped he wouldn’t say something that sought further confirmation like ‘Really?’, but his friend just smiled.

He was beginning to feel a little embarrassed about his admission (although it’s true, the most truthful thing I’ve ever said), so he turned back to the paper on the floor in front of him.

John began spraying again. “Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you,”

“What?”

“It’s of you, so of course you think it’s beautiful.”

Sherlock shot him a look. John laughed.

“Thank you, though,” he said after a moment.

Sherlock was unsure of what to say to that, so he said nothing.

***

When John had gone to hand his piece in, Sherlock had remained behind. Those who weren’t contestants weren’t allowed to see all of the pieces until the judgements had been made, and he had wanted some time to himself anyway, to think. He hadn’t thought about much, but at the same time, his mind had been reeling. He hadn’t slept well that night.

Therefore, the first time Sherlock saw the competition was a few nights later, at the awarding of the prizes.

John hadn’t eaten much at dinner, just an apple, and for once, it was Sherlock who was worrying about how much John was eating. They hadn’t spoken much, either. What John did say was short and uninteresting, so Sherlock didn’t bother pursuing conversation. It was a good thing they were used to sharing silence.

The announcement and exhibition of all the pieces was to be held in the assembly hall, which had been transformed into a makeshift art gallery. The chairs had been pushed back and pillars erected, on which were hung photographs, paintings, drawings – all manner of artistic endeavours.

John and Sherlock wandered slowly around the hall looking at the other pieces. They were arranged by medium, and when they got to the section that contained John’s piece, it was almost a shock to see it again. A few other people were looking at it, and Sherlock suddenly realised that they were looking at him – indirectly, but they were looking at him. Sherlock wondered if they knew.

As the head of the art department, a white-haired woman with green horn-rimmed glasses, made her way to the podium, silence fell over the hall, which was almost full. Sherlock and John stood by the edge, and Sherlock watched the way his friend stood a little straighter as she began to speak.

She waffled for a few minutes about ‘the wonderful array of talent’ on display, and Sherlock felt like shaking her and telling her to hurry up. For John’s sake, he wanted the whole ordeal to hurry up and be over with.

The winner in the painting category was, of course, Raz – and Sherlock was pleased for him. As soon as he had his trophy in his hands, he held it above his head and let out a yell of triumph, earning himself glares from the assembled teachers. He had spray-painted a huge mural made up of lots of sheets of paper that depicted various school buildings, seemingly half-destroyed in some sort of vague but dystopic apocalypse.

Sherlock was rather surprised to hear Kate Newman’s name being called as the winner in the photography category; he hadn’t known she was interested in art.

“Isn’t that that girl who’s always with Irene Adler?” John whispered to him.

“Her girlfriend, yes,” Sherlock replied. As Kate descended from the stage and re-joined Irene, who was standing near him and John, the latter girl gave the former a passionate and shameless kiss that Sherlock found rather distasteful in such a public situation. He couldn’t recall which piece was Kate’s, but he thought it most likely to be the one of the torso of a naked girl with long, dark curls who was walking away from the camera through some dramatically moonlit woods. Sherlock expected that photograph would increase Irene’s… business by a good percentage.

Sherlock wouldn’t be able to remember the winners of the sculpture, collage or textile categories – he’d deleted them as soon as he’d heard them. None of them were John, so they didn’t matter.

“Now, to the graphite category.” Sherlock immediately started paying attention again, acutely aware of John’s presence beside him. “There were several strong contenders here, as this was the category with the most entries. Congratulations to all those who entered for making our decision so difficult. Our winner was Seyi Babalola from Green house, with our runner-up being John Watson from Doyle.”

Sherlock froze.

He turned to John, and had never felt so relieved than when he saw that John was smiling – beaming, in fact, from ear to ear.

“Congratulations,” he said, and John took a step towards him and for a moment Sherlock thought he was going to kiss him, but he was simply squeezing past him to walk up to the stage.

As he watched his friend shake the Head Master’s hand and receive his certificate, Sherlock felt his chest warm with something he had never before felt for someone else – pride, overwhelming and undefined.

When John returned to stand next to him, Sherlock let himself smile at his friend.

“I can’t believe it,” John whispered as the overall best house was announced – it wasn’t Doyle, but Sherlock didn’t care.

“I was worried you’d be disappointed you didn’t win,” Sherlock confessed.

“Disappointed? I’m bloody ecstatic!” John said, a little too loudly, earning him a few frowns from those around them. “Would you look at that,” he said, holding out his certificate.

Sherlock smiled. “Your family will be very proud.”

“Mm,” John agreed. “Your name should be there as well, though.”

“What? Don’t be absurd, I didn’t do anything.”

John shrugged. “It was a joint effort.”

Sherlock hadn’t noticed that the crowd was beginning to disperse – the ceremony was over. “Do you want to stay or shall we go back to house?”

“Let me just take a picture to show mum and Harry and then we’ll go,” John replied, walking over to his piece. Sherlock followed at leisure as John got out his phone and held it up, pressing the shutter button. “Oh! Let me take one with you next to it.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes, but complied, standing next to the piece. He put his hands behind his back and looked into the lens. John took a picture, and then lowered the phone a little.

“Oh, come on, Sherlock, smile!” John said.

“Why should I? I’m not smiling in the piece so there’s no point.”

“Your face isn’t in the piece at all so it makes no difference!” John replied, holding the phone back up. “Smile!”

“I don’t smile in photos, John.”

“God, your Facebook account would be depressing,” John laughed. “Just smile!”

“No!” Sherlock replied indignantly.

“N– oh my god,” John said, then dissolved in laughter, and despite himself, Sherlock could feel a smile tugging at his mouth, but John lowered the phone so he could scrub a hand over his eyes. “You’re completely ridiculous, you’re the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met.”

“Let’s go, John,” Sherlock said, walking towards the door and hearing his friend’s laughter rather than his footsteps follow him.

***

Later that night, John was sitting on his bed, replying to a various congratulations from his friends in other houses. He realised he hadn’t yet told his family, so he took a picture of the certificate that he had just Blu-tacked to the wall above his bed and texted it to his mother.

John:I came runner up in the graphite category of the house art competition!

He scrolled through his pictures to find the ones of his piece, sending the one without Sherlock in, and then going back to find the one with Sherlock smiling.

“Ah, shit – Sherlock?”

“Yes?” his friend replied from below.

“You know when I was trying to get you to smile earlier?”

“…Yes?” Sherlock said warily.

“I accidentally filmed all of that,” John laughed.

“Delete it,” Sherlock said immediately. “And how did you manage that?”

 “I think I must have changed the mode without realising when I was talking to you,” John replied. “And no way am I deleting it.”

He heard Sherlock sigh, but his friend didn’t seem as if it was worth his energy to pursue the matter.

He sent the photo of Sherlock he'd taken when the boy wasn’t smiling, and considered sending the video as well, but he decided to keep it to himself.

***

A few days later, Sherlock was sitting in anthropology, half-reading his textbook and half-thinking about amnesia again, when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket.

It was an email – from John. He had forwarded something to him, with the addition of:

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! im gonna be famous :P

The forwarded email was from an address Sherlock didn’t recognise.

Hi John,

I’m the editor of the St Bart’s Herald, the school’s newspaper. Congratulations for your award in the house art competition – I thought your piece was amazing. I was hoping you’d be willing to write a small piece for the next edition of the Herald about said piece; your inspiration, your thoughts on your award, maybe even a bit about the subject. It only has to be short – we’re doing a special on the house competitions of the year so far, so around 100-150 words would be great. If you’re alright with this, you’ll have until the 29th to send it to me. Email me back if you’ve got any queries.

Regards,

Kitty Riley

***

The next few days passed in a maelstrom of essays, tests and frost. The only case Sherlock managed to find was a complex but petty affair involving some members of the cast of a play that was currently in rehearsals. It all came down to who was going out with who, and John had to stop him shouting at three of them who were refusing to speak to one another, and Sherlock had to stop John from slapping them.

John was sitting in English on a particularly boring Tuesday when his phone vibrated. He ignored it, as he was in the middle of a timed essay, but after the next four buzzes, he slowly drew it out of his pocket and laid it on his lap. Still writing, he clicked on the screen and felt his heart stop.

Sherlock:HELP

Sherlock:JOHN

Sherlock:HELP

Sherlock:JOHN

Sherlock:HELP ME

John wanted to run out of the classroom there and then, but he forced himself to breathe and put up his hand.

His teacher made eye contact with him.

 “Can I go to the toilet?” he whispered.

She wasn’t happy about it, but she let him go, and John made sure he was far enough down the corridor that his footsteps would no longer be audible in his classroom, before sending a text, stuffing his phone in his pocket and running.

John:Where are you? What’s going on? I’m on my way

There was no reply.

His mind raced – what did Sherlock have? Latin? No – chemistry – he’d been complaining at breakfast – he was unsure of where to go. What if he’d skipped the lesson and got himself into some sort of trouble?

He didn’t want to risk calling him in case he was hiding from someone and he gave him away.

John came to a junction and had to choose to either go right, to the science block, or left, to the playing fields and woods, and, eventually, Victor’s house – what if Victor had come back somehow? The thought made John’s throat clench.

After a couple of moments of indecision, he took off again, turning right and sprinting.

All kinds of scenarios were playing themselves out in his imagination – Sherlock unconscious somewhere, through his own doing or someone else’s – Sherlock in the back of a van – Sherlock in a dark basement – anything and everything could have happened but John had nothing at all to go on and he was panicking, the realisation hit him, he was going to panic – he focused on the pounding of his feet against the concrete, the feeling of the wind pushing against him, the flapping of his blazer behind him, remembered Sherlock’s grip on his arm that night, that night so long ago – you must’ve done this a thousand times before, John, come on, breathe – and there was the science block.

Chemistry was on the ground floor, John remembered, and thank Christ for that, and he circled the building, peering into every window he could without a teacher noticing. It only took him about a minute to find Sherlock’s classroom and –

I’m going to fucking kill him.

Sherlock was sitting there, leaning back in his chair, a test in front of him.

John whipped out his phone, hands shaking with a mixture of left-over adrenaline and newer anger, so strong he could barely type.

John:Look to your left.

A few seconds later, he saw Sherlock check his phone – and look up.

His friend’s eyes widened in what John hoped was fear.

***

John had stormed away from the science block almost blind with fury, and was still fuming when Sherlock returned to their room at break time.

As soon as Sherlock stepped over the threshold, John grabbed him by the shirt and shoved him against the wall, kicking the door shut with his foot.

“What the fuck, Sherlock?” he shouted.

His friend swallowed and kept his eyes on the floor.

“I’m – ” he began, but John cut him off.

“You’re what, Sherlock? Because ‘sorry’ isn’t going to cut it.”

“I am sorry, John,” Sherlock said quietly. Before John could say anything, he continued hastily. “I was bored and I – ”

“You were bored? I thought you were dying!”

Neither boy said anything for a moment. The words made the air thick. John could feel Sherlock’s chest rising and falling rapidly under his hand, which was still gripping onto the front of his shirt. John looked at his hand, at his white knuckles, and forced himself to let go.

“I thought you were dying, Sherlock,” John repeated, quieter, softer, trying to make him understand, trying to make him feel what – “I thought my best friend was dying and I was doing a timed essay that determines my grade for this half term, Sherlock, you can’t just expect to say sorry and be forgiven,”

Then, of all things he could have done, Sherlock laughed.

John felt a flare of anger spark deep in his stomach and he raised his hands to – to do something, to punch, to hit, to shove, to slap – but his friend abruptly stopped laughing and tried to turn away from a potential impact, and in that one gesture were all the years he’d spent in the attic, with a needle in his arm, with the darkness and the quiet and the hatred, hatred of himself and of the world and of everyone in it, and John lowered his hands.

“Sherlock. Look at me.” John said, fighting to keep his voice steady. His friend slowly raised his head again, and those eyes, so clear, met his. “You have to understand that you cannot do things like that. You just can’t. Not with me. You understand, don’t you? Not with me. You mean too much to me. If you’re bored, say so, and I’ll entertain you, but don’t pull shit like that. I was out of my mind with worry. I was going to – Christ, Sherlock, don’t do that again. Just don’t.” John felt a lump in his throat and tried to swallow it down, without success. “Please.”

He looked at Sherlock, waiting for him to say something, but his friend only blinked.

John felt no more anger. If that was what Sherlock wanted to do, that was what was going to happen. He stepped back and made for the door.

“John.”

He stopped, but couldn’t bring himself to turn around and face him.

“I don’t have friends.”

John closed his eyes briefly, felt the sting of tears in their corners.

"John?"

He turned the handle and walked out into the corridor, despite every cell in his body telling him to go back go back go back go back to the voice that was calling his name as if he’d never say anything else ever again. John blocked it out.

There was a hand on him arm. John tried to shake it off, but the grip only grew stronger, and John was sick and tired, of what he wasn't sure, so he turned around, jaw clenched, fists clenched, throat clenched.

“I don’t have friends,” Sherlock repeated, so quiet John could barely hear him, and John was suddenly aware that they were standing in the middle of the lower sixth corridor, and the walls were cream and there was laughter coming from the rooms around them, and it was only break time on a Tuesday and nothing felt as if the world was ripping in two but it was and nobody seemed to be noticing. “I’ve just got one.”

All John’s breath left him and he looked at the carpet, fraying and thin.

“So please understand, I’m still trying to understand how not to lose you because for some reason I can’t let that happen.”

Sherlock’s words were barely audible and fast and neither boy was looking at the other.

“I was insensitive and selfish and so fucking stupid, John. I’m sorry.”

John looked up at the expletive, and Sherlock looked at the floor.

“I’ve never heard you swear before,” John said.

“Don’t tell Mycroft,” Sherlock said after a pause.

John snorted in surprise, but stopped himself. Was that a joke? Is Sherlock making jokes at a time like this? Sherlock’s gaze flicked up to John’s briefly and there was a hesitant smirk there, and John snorted again, then giggled, and fought to keep a straight face but couldn’t, because Sherlock was looking at him again and laughing as well, and they were both laughing to keep themselves from crying, and John put a hand over his mouth, and Sherlock pursed his lips and John whispered, “We shouldn’t be laughing.”

Sherlock shook his head and swallowed. “It is quite funny, though,” he said.

“No, it isn’t, it’s fucking awful,” John said, but that didn’t stop him from grinning. “You fucking laughed while I was yelling at you, I don’t think you have any authority over appropriate humour.”

Sherlock sobered a little at this. “That was only because you put your timed essay in the same sentence as thinking I was dying as if it was of equal importance.”

John felt his mouth hanging open in astonishment. “I should punch you in the balls, Sherlock Holmes, and I will, one of these days.”

“I have no doubt of that,” Sherlock replied.

They were both silent for a moment, listening to each other’s breathing.

“I’m sorry, John." Sherlock said.

John sighed. “I know, Sherlock.”

And they were standing in the middle of the lower sixth corridor, and the walls were cream and there was laughter coming from the rooms around them, and it was only break time on a Tuesday and nothing felt as if the world was putting itself back together but it was and nobody seemed to be noticing.

Chapter Text

“I think I’m… finished,” John said emphatically, typing the final full stop of his piece for the St Bart’s Herald.

“You’ve said that at least five times in the last two days,” Sherlock commented from his desk, where, when John last checked, he was doing something suspicious with a luminous green acid.

“Yes, but this time, I’m actually done,” John replied, opening up his school email account. He searched the address book for Kitty Riley. “What do you know about this Kitty, then? I don’t think I even know who she is.”

“Not much,” Sherlock said nonchalantly.

“Oh, yeah, sure you don’t,” John said sarcastically. “Your qualifications of ‘not much’ don’t exactly match mine.”

“If you insist…” He heard Sherlock turning on his Bunsen burner, then the clinking of metal on glass. “She’s in upper sixth, obviously; ginger, obviously; takes English, French, and drama, obviously; but isn’t quite as smart as she thinks she is, obviously.”

“Okay, smart arse,” the other boy responded. “No need to be rude.”

“She’s ambushed me on several occasions, tried to get an interview for her precious newspaper – ” his tone suggested he thought it more of a parish council newsletter “ – but she hasn’t succeeded yet.”

“Yet?”

“She isn’t as smart as she thinks she is, but she is smart. Never say never, John.”

John snorted. “Whatever you say, Justin.”

He heard Sherlock pause in whatever he was doing. “John… have you got amnesia too? Can I do a blood test – no, better, can I take a urine sample so– ?”

“It was a joke, Sherlock,” John interrupted hastily. “Because the phrase ‘never say never’ is – you know what? Never mind,” he concluded, and could almost sense his friend’s frown as he sent his piece to Kitty. “There, done and dusted.”

“So… I can’t take a urine sample?”

***

Sherlock was lying on his back in bed. He was surprisingly tired, but was keeping himself awake by trawling through the latest edition of an online scientific journal on his phone.

He looked over at John.

Since their altercation two-and-three-quarter days ago (roughly), things between them had been a little fragile, like a vase on the edge of a mantelpiece.

Sherlock had never had to filter himself before – he realised, now, that he probably should have done a couple of times – and he wasn’t going to make a habit of it. But he thought that, just for the time being, it might be wiser to keep himself as amicable as possible – not too much, else John would suspect something, but maybe go to bed earlier, go to more meals, that sort of thing. Just make sure the concrete over their cracks had dried before he put his weight on them again.

His friend was still awake as well, despite the lateness of the hour. He was on lying on his right side, also on his phone. Texting. Probably Jeanette, by the slight frown on his face. And there’s the entire prognosis for their relationship, Sherlock thought. He found John’s attempts at romantic entanglements quite pitiful; he didn’t seem to be able to hold anything down for more than a couple of weeks.

Mary.

The name drifted into his thoughts.

Who’s Mary? And then he remembered: John’s first love, which he really, really didn’t need to have known the details of, but remembered in irritating clarity all the same.

It seemed as if they had stayed together for a long stretch of time, but maybe she was an exception. But why, then, why was he unsuccessful now? If he had had such a stable relationship when he was, what, fifteen? Sixteen? Why was he fumbling now – now when he was older and wiser and probably better looking? John was dependable, caring, generous, funny – all the things a good boyfriend was supposed to be. It didn’t make sense. But then again, Mycroft had always said that Sherlock never understood affairs of the heart – like he understands them any better, Sherlock thought sourly.

He tried to focus back on the article he had been reading, but he was distracted. By what, he didn’t know. He felt restless.

He turned over onto his left side. He could see John’s face between the metal bars of their beds.

A small smile tugged at his mouth as an idea popped into his mind.

Sherlock:Don’t make a sound.

He sent the message and then watched John. He saw his eyes flick to the top of his screen and his frown vanish as his phone received it – but the frown quickly returned. He dropped his phone from in front of his face and opened his mouth to say something, but Sherlock put his finger to his lips and shook his head. John rolled his eyes and picked up his phone again.

John:Why are you texting me?

When Sherlock received John’s message back, he couldn’t resist grinning at the ridiculous expression of exasperation his friend was wearing before replying.

SherlockMycroft put microphones in our room at some point in the last few days.

It was true – earlier that day, whilst looking for a book he thought he’d dropped down the back of his wardrobe, he’d seen the first of them: a tiny dot of a thing, stuck to the wall behind his wardrobe. The other had been behind their radiator, and he suspected there were more, but he wasn’t too bothered to search for them. Mycroft was probably paying one of the thicker year nines to spy on him anyway, and he had his suspicions about Lestrade as well, so hearing him and John talk about the weather or what lesson they had next or the dates of their exams would be nothing revolutionary.

John:Wtf? When? How? Why??

Sherlock:When we were both out, I suppose. Of course, he didn’t do it himself, that would involve legwork. And he likes to monitor everything I do, something about self-destructive tendencies, yadda yadda yadda, blah blah blah

John:Most siblings would just text, call every so often… not how it’s done in the Holmes household, huh?

Sherlock:What, open and emotionally sincere verbal communication? Don’t be so ridiculous.

Sherlock heard John snort a laugh.

John:So how do you know? About the mics?

Sherlock:I’ve seen them – I’ve only found two but it’s probable there’s more. Remind me to show you.

John:Does he know you know about them?

Sherlock:I don’t think so. I certainly haven’t mentioned them to him… unless he’s monitoring my texts as well now…

John:Is that even possible??

Sherlock:I wouldn’t put it past him – or rather, past MI6.

John:Your brother works for MI6?!

Sherlock:Not really.

John:What do you mean, ‘not really’?

Sherlock:I’m too tired to get into the details right now.

John:…so you don’t know the details, then :P

Sherlock sighed at the little text-face and looked over his phone at his friend, who noticed him looking, grinned, and then mimicked the emoticon, sticking his tongue out. Sherlock rolled his eyes and went back to his phone.

The time at the top of the screen read 00:08.

Sherlock:Pinch, punch, first of the month.

John:God, is it really December already? Wow, how the time flies…

Sherlock:How it does, indeed.

The rest of the expression went unsaid. It was a small, shared, silent secret between the two of them in the darkness. A small, shared, silent admission, suspended between their beds.

John:Anyway, a slap and a kick for being so quick :D

Sherlock:Goodnight, John.

John:Night, Sherlock.

***

John woke the next morning to a bleary vision of Sherlock’s face two inches from the bars that stopped him rolling out of bed in the night.

“Wha-?” John began sleepily, aware that his morning breath probably wasn’t the most pleasant thing for Sherlock to be experiencing before the sun had properly risen.

Sherlock put his finger to his lips as he had done the night before, then beckoned John out of bed with that same pale digit. John, after a moment of weary and confused hesitation, obliged, and half-stumbled down his ladder. He followed Sherlock to the radiator, where his friend was crouching. John did the same, and peered behind the apparatus. Sure enough, a tiny circular gadget was stuck somehow to the wall.

John turned to Sherlock and gave him a look that he hoped conveyed the sentiment of fair enough, kudos to whoever put that there without us noticing, but then Sherlock leaned closer, and closer still, until his mouth was what felt like millimetres away from the shell of his ear. A whisper, so quiet that John had to concentrate to understand it, travelled the short distance from mouth to ear, and John’s skin was warmed by soft breath.

“There’s another behind my wardrobe.”

When Sherlock withdrew, he simply raised an eyebrow at John before straightening up and going to potter about with something on his desk.

“Seventeen days until we’re out of this hell-hole,” he mused aloud, breaking the moment of whispers, and John knew that a secret now rested in their hands: they knew, but Mycroft didn’t know that they knew. They had the upper hand.

***

Sherlock’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He put it to his ear.

“Hey, Sherlock, where are you?”

“I can’t really talk right now, John,” Sherlock whispered.

“Why? Shall I call back?”

“No, it’s – ” Sherlock heard footsteps, gradually getting louder, coming towards the office he was in. “I have to go, see you in biology,” he said hastily, and, without waiting for a reply, ended the call.

“Oi! Who’s in there? That’s a private area!”

Sherlock didn’t bother checking who was shouting at him from the corridor. Instead he leapt onto the desk and left the room the way he came in: through the window.

***

Sherlock was only just on time for biology. He made sure to slow his walking pace to a casual saunter before he got to the classroom, not knocking before entering.

“Quick, take a seat, Holmes; textbook open to page fifty, if you please,” Dr Hope was saying to him, but he wasn’t listening – John had looked up when he’d entered the room, and was now grinning at him. Sherlock made his way over to their desk and slumped into it.

“Did you run here?” John whispered once Dr Hope resumed his monologue about the small intestine.

Sherlock cursed silently. He’d tried to disguise his breathlessness – without success, it seemed. John was getting better at reading him, and he wasn’t sure whether that was a thing to be pleased about terrified of.

“None of your business,” Sherlock replied, equally quietly, opening his textbook and pretending to concentrate on the (painfully simplistic) diagrams there, as John was. “What are you so excited about?”

“I got a copy of the Herald at break,” John replied. “I haven’t looked at it yet, I wanted to wait until you were with me,”

Of course, of course – Sherlock remembered, looking up at the whiteboard momentarily, where the date was scribbled in the top right-hand corner – the first of December; the periodical is bi-monthly and today is the first, the day John’s piece is published, of course – but he said, “We can read it when he sets us some questions.”

Half an hour later, the old man had set them some reading and retired to his desk. As soon as he’d sat down, John had reached into his folder and quickly brought out the paper, setting it on his knee. He flicked through, and found the reports on the house competitions, then the pages on the house art, and opened it, the paper now resting on Sherlock’s right knee as well as John’s left.

There were large photographs of the winning pieces, with short interviews with their creators – Sherlock wanted to read Kate’s, but John turned over the page and to reveal all of the runners-up. And there was a photograph of John’s piece; it was difficult to appreciate it fully in such a small image of it, but Sherlock was again struck by his friend’s skill.

Underneath the image, there was a short block of text – John’s writing. Sherlock began to read.

John Watson, of L6th Doyle, gave us his reflections on his award:

‘I was absolutely amazed that my piece received any praise – I have no qualifications whatsoever, and only really draw out of habit. I was truly stuck for ideas that would fit the theme, but while I was in bed one night, thinking about all those Renaissance saints draped over each other, my very monochrome friend was leaning back in his chair, and inspiration struck. So I had him lie on top of our fridge (sorry, Sherlock!)  and the setting sun, and later, our desk lamps, made all his angles catch the shadows of the evening, and if you gave him some deep red robes and candlelight, I don’t think he’d be out of place in a Caravaggio.

To me, chiaroscuro is very much what Sherlock has made my life: you’re either running through the darkness in some mad goose chase, or you’re seeing the world illuminated through his deductions. So, in the end, I found the theme of the competition incredibly simple to fulfil.’

 “What do you think?” John whispered.

Sherlock wanted to read over it again, and again, and take a cutting, and keep it, and he hadn’t felt this need to hoard since he was small and collecting interesting-looking stones to put on his bookshelves. It made him feel as if he was sitting on a table in the library in the dead of night again, reading by phone-light, but everything was different, in ways he couldn’t ever have imagined or explained, but in ways that made his blood feel a little hotter, his pulse a little faster. He was scared, for a moment, but it was alright. It was okay. Because there was someone else beside him, someone who had written about him so openly and unabashedly in a newspaper hundreds of other people would read, someone who didn’t care about those hundreds of other people at all, and who had waited to read it until they were together, and who was now asking his opinion, as if it was the only one that mattered.

Sherlock swallowed.

“It’s alright,” he said. “A little over-sentimental, if you ask me.”

John made a tutting sound, and rolled his eyes. He took the newspaper off Sherlock’s leg, and that brush and then absence of paper made Sherlock feel as if something was slipping away from him.

“But it’s…” he began hastily, and John looked at him. “It’s better than the others.”

For some reason, for some god damn reason, he couldn’t say that it was lovely, that it moved him, that it was beautiful – though he had about the painting. He had been truthful then, and he couldn’t work out what was different here, now. Something was different, though.

“Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you.”

“What?”

“It’s of you, so of course you think it’s beautiful.”

Plausible deniability. That was it. That was what was different, the lack of it.

There was no way he could say that it was beautiful without talking about anything other than John’s words, the words that formed John’s perception of their relationship. There was no way he could say that their own relationship was beautiful – that would be acknowledging something that was already known to all the universe, it seemed, but… no. He couldn’t.

There was no way he could say what he thought without the ability for it to be passed off for something else – though John knew that he didn’t actually think the drawing was beautiful because he thought himself to be beautiful; he had been joking, then, and they both knew it. But the layers of that conversation, the joke mixed in with the sincerity, had made the latter just bearable. Just.

Sherlock didn’t like direct conversations. He thrived off ambiguity, ambivalence. He talked beneath his words, around them, through them. And there was no ambivalence here, not even in a potential joke John could make about Sherlock’s vanity, if he said it was beautiful. And for some reason, for some god damn reason, he couldn’t say it.

“Kitty said that,” John said, in a way that seemed offhand, but Sherlock knew he was proud. “She said she’d heard about you – about us.”

“Most people have, John,” Sherlock said, and it was true. He was used to people knowing his name, though he was less used to his name being followed by another. He was still adjusting to the you-plural.

“Oh, shall we look at the house singing page?” John said, opening the newspaper again, returning it to rest on both of their knees.

The competition took up a double-page spread, headed by the words: WE RAISED THE ROOF

Underneath was a large photograph of Doyle on stage, Sherlock standing right at the front. He supposed it must have been taken during the crescendo, and he was rather pleased to see that his face was as composed as he’d hoped. John was behind him and to the left, and Sherlock was suddenly glad he had rolled up his friend’s sleeves – John looked a lot better than the other boys who had left them down. Next to the image was a sub-heading that almost made Sherlock want to burn the paper right there and then: TOO RYE LOO RYE (HOOR)AY! DOYLE WINS WITH 80s CLASSIC

“Look at you, you look like you belong in the West End,” John said. “Ooh, listen to this: ‘It seemed head of house Eddie van Coon had unearthed Doyle’s secret weapon, who goes by the infamous name of Sherlock Holmes. We all know of his big, sometimes abrasive brain, but who knew of his dexterity with a violin in his hands? His appearance from the back of the auditorium helped made their performance spatially dynamic, aiding them…’ blah, blah, blah, something about slickness of choreography… ah, that’s it, that’s all there is about you.”

“Unacceptable,” Sherlock said sarcastically.

“It’s a nice picture though, don’t you think? You could probably do with a haircut, though.”

“So could you,” Sherlock retaliated. “You’ll look like a pre-teen if it gets any longer.”

“At least I won’t look like a mushroom.”

“Are you saying I look like a mushroom?”

“Hey! Pair at the back; I’m not seeing many notes being taken,” Dr Hope scolded from the front of the classroom. John gave Sherlock an apologetic look and folded the newspaper back up, slipping it back into his folder.

“So why couldn’t you talk earlier? Was I interrupting something private?” John asked, with an expression that Sherlock had sometimes seen other people use when they were being lewd or suggestive, and Sherlock suddenly realised that John was joking about something sexual, about Sherlock himself doing something sexual – but John knew that Sherlock had no sexual partners since Victor had been taken into the iron embrace of the law, so what was he-? Oh.

Sherlock made a face and rolled his eyes at his friend, who laughed quietly. “I was doing some research into the sources of the school’s food.”

“You were snooping in some office you shouldn’t have been, then,” John assumed – and infuriatingly, he was right.

“No, I was researching into the sources of the school’s food… in an office I shouldn’t have been,” Sherlock admitted.

“Christ almighty,” John muttered, eyebrows raised. “I’m surprised you haven’t gotten arrested yet.”

“What makes you think that?” Sherlock said, holding John’s faze with his own.

“What, seriously?”

Sherlock nodded.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised, to be honest,” he sighed. “What for?”

“Breaking and entering,” Sherlock explained. “I was only in custody overnight because I was a very small fifteen year old who could – and still can, by the way – cry on cue, and who had only picked old Mr Davis’ locks because I thought I heard his dog howling in distress and who was very sorry and who had definitely not stolen his Viagra because he was a racist bastard.”

John was looking at him. “You’re like some fucked-up vigilante Robin Hood.”

“Don’t worry, I had ulterior motives,” Sherlock grinned, the memories coming back. “I ground it up and put it in Mycroft’s tea – he didn’t come downstairs for days… oh, the look on his face when he finally did, John, it was priceless.”

John was struggling to keep a straight face. His mouth twisted and his skin crinkled at the corners of his eyes, and the sight made Sherlock warm in his stomach and all of a sudden he thought he might be sick – but Dr Hope glared daggers at them from the front of the classroom, so they both lowered their heads and focussed intently on the paper in front of them. Out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock could see John convulsing silently with laughter, and Sherlock’s stomach was still turning but he felt the very opposite of ill.

***

That Sunday, John had, like every Sunday, invited Sherlock to go into town with him, except this Sunday, he had accepted. The look of shock on his friend’s face had made Sherlock laugh.

The day was crisp, and the air felt thin with winter.

The main square was stuffed to brimming with market stalls, their owners either shivering behind them or happily engaging the rosy-cheeked customers bustling from awning to awning.

“Why are we here, again?”

“Christmas shopping, Sherlock,” John replied.

Sherlock groaned. “We don’t break up for weeks, this is really not necessary.”

“Alright, Scrooge, but we’re here now, so shut up and help me find cheap jewellery.”

Sherlock groaned, but followed John around the market dutifully, thankful for his scarf.

John got distracted by a music stall, and spent a good few minutes happily engrossed in rifling through some old vinyl discs, ooh-ing and aah-ing at certain names and titles, all of which Sherlock was entirely uninterested in. When the latter finally managed to coax the former away from that stall, it didn’t take long for them to catch the scent of something roasted to sweetness on the light breeze, and despite Sherlock’s protestations, John followed his nose to its origin. It turned out to be roasted chestnuts, caramelised with sugar, and once the two boys had a bag each in their hands, they began browsing again.

“They sell these a lot in – ”

“London, I know,” Sherlock finished. “South Bank, London Bridge.”

There was a pause.

“Reminds me of Christmas at home,” John said, and his voice betrayed neither sadness nor happiness, simply a bittersweet-ness, a wistfulness.

Sherlock put a nut into his mouth and bit down, the sweet outer layer giving way to the earthier centre. He felt a tap on his arm, and when he looked at John, it seemed that his friend had done the same, but with such an absurdly huge quantity of nuts that he looked like a chipmunk, storing food in its cheeks, and Sherlock informed him of this in no uncertain terms.

John closed his eyes in comic bliss, grinned, wide, and it was funny in a way that Sherlock couldn’t quite work out, the nuts almost spilling out from between his lips. Sherlock snorted and threw a nut at his friend, which bounced off his forehead. John opened his mouth, presumably to protest, but due to the sheer amount of chestnuts stuffed in his mouth, no intelligible sound came out, but plenty of nuts did, somehow making John look even more surprised than before. Sherlock found himself laughing as his friend tried to catch the nuts tumbling from his mouth, but John laughing as he did so, which made the task nigh-on impossible, and both boys were giggling like primary school kids, nuts everywhere.

Finally, John managed to get himself under control, and Sherlock felt as if he were fizzing, and it was probably a combination of the cold and the sugar.

They walked on a little more, until John spotted a stall selling tacky woollen accessories, Fair Isle patterns assaulting the eye and bobbles on practically everything.

John seemed drawn to it by some sort of variant on gravity, and so Sherlock found himself also approaching the stall. The owner barely looked at them, as there were a couple of other customers already being served.

“I love these sorts of things,” John said contentedly. “Like, who in their right mind would ever wear this, seriously?” he held up a blue and white knitted hat with too many bobbles for its own good.

“Oh, I don’t know, John, bobble hats are quite in this season,” Sherlock joked, and John laughed, but then something in his expression changed (that mischievous glint, a prelude to laughter), and suddenly he was advancing towards him, hat held outstretched. Before Sherlock realised what was happening, his friend was trying to stuff the hat onto his head.

“No, John – stop – ” Sherlock spluttered, but John was stronger than he looked, and despite Sherlock’s best efforts, he ended up with the thing wedged firmly on top of his head.

“Oh, gorgeous!” John said, stepping back and looking upon his creation. “The blue brings out your eyes.” Those Sherlock rolled, and John laughed. “I am so getting you this for Christmas,” he said, reaching up and swiping the thing off Sherlock’s head.

John turned around to pay for the hat, and Sherlock stood still. The thought that he may have had to buy John a Christmas present hadn’t even crossed his mind – it is something friends do for each other, it makes perfect sense, Sherlock reminded himself – but what? What on earth do I get John? Gifts are supposed to reflect the depth of one’s relationship with the person – what if he judged it wrong? What if John hated what he got him – what if he told him he hated whatever it was, to his face? Worse still; what if John said he loved it when he despised it – John would do that, curse his manners – and what if Sherlock could read it in his appeasing face? Because he would be able to, and even imagining that feeling made Sherlock’s chest tight.

But all he said was, “Aren’t presents supposed to be a surprise?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got something else in mind as well,” John dismissed.

They began walking again, silent for a little while.

John had the plastic bag containing the hat swinging from two fingers of the hand that also held the paper one containing the nuts, popping one into his mouth every so often.

Sherlock watched him.

His breath curled into the air in a white mist.

C₆H₁₂O₆ + 6O₂ -->  6CO₂ + 6H₂O. Respiration, all that combustion, just to keep the boy beside him walking.

John twirled each nut once between his finger and thumb before putting it into his mouth.

John glanced at Sherlock briefly, before becoming distracted by something, but then moving his gaze back to Sherlock, a quizzical expression on his face.

“What is it? Do I have food on my face or something?” he asked.

“No, you just – ” Sherlock began, but stopped himself. He realised that telling someone their own eating habits probably wasn’t polite or socially acceptable. “You’ve just got an eyelash on your cheek.”

John brushed a hand over his face, gave him another questioning look, and when Sherlock nodded, moved his attention away once more to the stalls they were passing.

Their search through the market was pleasant, though ultimately in vain. After they had passed each stall at least twice, chatted with more people than Sherlock would have liked, and John had begun to complain about the cold, they eventually moved into a tiny coffee shop.

John, of course, ordered a hot chocolate, and Sherlock took tea, and they both sat at one of the tables by the window.

Sherlock wiped his arm on the glass, clearing some of the condensation, and looked out. There were quite a few families out, young children bundled up against the cold. With all of that clothing on, at-a-glance deductions were difficult, and his thoughts turned again to amnesia.

The school obtained its food from tens of different suppliers, and that was nowhere near the end of the production chain. It was going to take a lot of time to track all of the produce, and he didn’t even know if it was going to be a serial occurrence – Angelica had been the only case so far.

A movement in the edge of his vision pulled him out of his head a little. John was drawing in the condensation on the window: a dot, another dot next to it, a bracket on its back underneath, a circle around those three components – a smiling face. John noticed Sherlock watching and smiled at him.

The drawing began to run, making the smile look like it was crying, and soon it wasn’t recognisable at all.

Sherlock wondered if John could still taste the nuts, as Sherlock could. Just.

A memory flared briefly: the first time he had kissed Victor. They had taken the same pill, and Sherlock had tasted the same chemical tang on Victor’s tongue as he had tasted on his own.

Sherlock wondered if he would be able to taste the same nutty aftertaste on John’s tongue as he could taste on his own.

And then stopped wondering.

And looked straight ahead.

And sat very still.

And hoped the heat he could feel in his cheeks was a result of coming in out of the cold.

***

The door to room twenty one burst open.

In the threshold was a small, mousey-haired boy, panting, hair stuck to his forehead with sweat.

He took a great gulp of air, and –

“There’s been a murder!”

***

“So you say that he you just walked in and he was fitting?” John asked as he, Sherlock, and the boy, whose name turned out to be Percy Phelps, strode down the road to Dickens.

“Yeah – or something like fitting, anyway,” Percy agreed, rather breathless from trying to keep up with Sherlock’s pace – John remembered when he had still been unaccustomed to it, and sympathised. “We didn’t want to come and get you at first, Ander- I mean, this kid said he could handle – ”

Sherlock stopped, and the boy walked into him. Sherlock took a step into his space, towering above him, face like thunder. John put a hand on his arm.

“Did you say Anderson?” he asked, voice low.

Percy looked at his feet. “Yes,” he said quietly. “He told me not to mention his name, he said you wouldn’t come if you knew he was involved. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” John dismissed. “Christ knows that kid’s a prick, but Sherlock’s going to be mature and still help, isn’t he?” the last question was directed at his friend, who sighed.

“Of course he is,” he said eventually.  “He’s not a child, and he wouldn’t pass up a murder for the world.”

“I knew he wouldn’t,” John said. “Right then, let’s get going.”

***

In the middle of the Dickens common room lay the body.

Sherlock walked up to it, silently, as if he didn’t want it to know he was coming. He knelt down.

John walked over to Anderson, who was standing with Sally Donovan. They both had perturbed frowns on their faces.

“Hi,” John said shortly. “You guys okay?”

“It wasn’t, uh,” Anderson started, then cleared his throat, a gesture which betrayed a depth of emotion that John hadn’t thought he would have displayed. “It wasn’t pretty.”

“Were you two the only ones in here when it happened?” John said, softening his tone a little.

“Us and Tadpole,” Sally replied, then corrected herself upon seeing John’s confusion. “Percy, us and Percy. We’d just come in from a walk, and Percy was coming to get a drink, and we all walked into the common room at the same time, and there he was, just…”

She trailed off, pursing her lips. John nodded.

Percy was loitering by Sherlock, who shooed him away with a flick of his hand.

“You alright, Percy? You look a little pale,” John asked.

The boy took a breath. “I’m fine,” he said. “He was just so young, you know? Just a puppy.”

“How old?”

“Only two years,” Percy said, looking back at Sherlock, who was hovering over the body. “I mean, in dog years, he was the same age as me…”

John rubbed the boy’s arm. “He was your housemaster’s, right? What was his name?”

“Mr Jingles,” Percy replied solemnly. “But everyone just called him Jingles.”

John heard a snort of laughter from Sherlock, and he scowled at his friend. Sherlock must have felt his eyes on his back, because he turned around.

“Apologies,” he said. “It is a stupid name, though.”

“Not the time, Sherlock.”

“What? It’s just a dog, and it can’t exactly hear us.”

John glanced at Percy, who looked as if he was about to cry; at Anderson, who folded his arms; and at Sally, who looked as if she was fighting to hold her tongue. He gave an apologetic look to all three, then joined his friend, who was currently peering in one of the corpse’s ears.

“Sherlock,” John said quietly. “Bit not good,”

“Why?” Sherlock replied, thankfully matching John’s volume. “It’s not as if any of those idiotic rules about respecting the dead apply to animals,”

John tried to word his next sentence as sensitively as possible. “Do you remember Redbeard?”

He saw Sherlock still for a split second.

“You were distraught when he – when he went, yes? I know you; I know you must have been.”

Sherlock didn’t look at John.

“Now, I know this dog didn’t belong to any of the people in this room, but he - and he’s a he, Sherlock, not an it - belonged to the family who live through that door,”

He nodded towards the door that was just to their left – a sign on it read MR BRADSTREET’S HOUSE, much like the one on Lestrade’s door in Doyle.

“And pretty soon, his kids are going to be coming home from school after having been picked up by his wife, and he himself will be coming back from his meeting, and they’re going to find a member of their family dead on this carpet. And those three people over there – ” he nodded at Percy, Anderson and Sally. “ – have just seen a living being die before their eyes. So, just, you know. Be a bit sensitive, yeah?”

Sherlock showed no sign that he had heard John’s scolding save that he pursed his lips, dropped his gaze from the dog’s body, and took a breath. But that was enough.

“So what do you think?” John asked after a moment.

“No, I want your opinion first,” Sherlock said, then looked at John, who was momentarily taken aback.

“Oh, um, sure,” he said, trying to focus. He tried to remember some of the more gory medical books Harry had bought for him over the years, tried to remember autopsy procedures.

He began with the mouth.

There was nothing different about the mouth, save that the lips were pale grey, which struck John as a bit odd.

“Don’t dogs usually have black lips?” he whispered to Sherlock, who nodded.

“But that’s normal, all skin pales after death, any death.”

“Right, of course,” John said hastily, feeling foolish. He knew that, of course he knew that.

He checked over the rest of the body, but there were no external signs that would indicate what had caused the dog to die. After a few frustrating minutes, John sat up.

“I can’t see anything,” he told Sherlock. “Like, at all. He’d definitely dead, but I can’t tell how.”

Sherlock chewed his lip, and that gesture told John all he needed to know. Sherlock Holmes, the Consulting Detective, capital C, capital D, was stumped.

They had a quick conversation with the others. Anderson and Sally had taken a look over the dog themselves, but had also turned up nothing. Just as they were deciding what to do, they heard the door to the house open.

John rushed out into the foyer, just in time to stop the three young boys, year tens at most, from walking any further. He managed to divert them from the common room without telling them the reason, and came back into the common room with a plan.

“We need to move the body.”

“I agree,” said Sally. “People will be starting to come back into house and we can’t have people seeing this.”

They all stood around Jingles.

After a moment, John said, “Right: I’ll take the front legs, Sherlock the hind, and Anderson could you support the middle?”

“No way in hell,” Anderson said, backing away a few steps.

“I’ll do it,” Sally said with exasperation.

“Okay,” John said, positioning himself. “On the count of three? Percy, can you hold open the door to Mr Bradstreet’s house? We’ll put him in there.”

Once he saw that everyone was ready, John began counting, and on three, he wrapped his hands tight around Jingles’ forelegs and lifted. He tried not to look at the body as they shuffled across the room, Sally with her hands under the dog’s back, Sherlock walking backwards, holding the hind legs.

Eventually, they reached the threshold between the common room and the tiles of Mr Bradstreet’s kitchen. They rounded the table and set the body down by the oven.

John wanted to rub his hands on his trousers, to scrub them, but he knew they weren’t dirty.

Anderson came in after them and leaned on the table. “What now?”

“I think we’re just going to have to wait until Bradstreet comes back – or his wife and kids, whoever’s first,” John sighed.

“Why did you say there had been a murder, Percy?” Sherlock asked. “You specifically said murder, but you didn’t know whether it was natural or not, did you?”

“Anderson told me to,” the boy said, sitting at the table. “He said you wouldn’t come for natural causes.”

“And was I wrong?” Anderson said.

Sherlock said nothing, but his face betrayed the fact that he was right. John wanted to laugh, but didn’t feel it would have been appropriate.

Suddenly, Percy yelped and jumped up.

“What is it?” John asked, rushing to his side.

Percy laughed, crouching down and looking under the table. “I just touched something furry with my foot, made me jump, that’s all. See, it’s only Jenny - the Bradstreets’ cat.”

John crouched as well. There was a small furry bundle lying on the floor, seemingly totally nonplussed about all these people disturbing her slumber.

“How many pets do they actually have? Jesus,” he heard Sally say.

“The kids have a Guinea pig as well,” Anderson replied. “Ridiculous, if you ask me.”

Nobody did, John thought to himself automatically. He ha dbeen trying his best to remain neutral with the boy, but every time he looked at his spotty face he thought of all those times he’d hurt Sherlock, mocked him, called him names, and what made it worse was that it was all in John’s imagination – he didn’t know how those situations had played themselves out, so his mind immediately assumed the worse. It made his blood boil.

He took a breath and focussed on the matter at hand. He reached out to stroke the cat, but when he touched her fur, he lifted his hand off immediately, like he’d been burnt by a hot stove. Except this was the complete opposite: the cat was stone cold.

He steeled himself, then put his hand back on the animal. She was still.

“Sherlock,” John called, moving a chair out of the way. He felt his friend get to his knees beside him. “Dead cat,” John whispered.

“What’s up?” Sally asked from above them. They ignored her while Sherlock placed his hand on the furry body. John watched him. After a moment, Sherlock looked back at John and nodded.

“Jingles isn’t the only dead animal today,” John sighed, standing up.

He heard Anderson curse and Sally exhale.

Sherlock stood up as well. “We should check the Guinea pig as well – Percy, do you know where it is?”

“N- no, sorry,” Percy stammered.

“Percy,” John said, voice low. The boy’s eyes were wide. “You can go and take a minute if you like.”

“I think – yeah, I think…” the boy said, walking out of the kitchen and back into the common room.

Eight eyes watched him go.

“I know where the Guinea pig is,” Anderson said, and began leading them through a corridor.

“Why?”

“Bradstreet sometimes gets me to babysit.”

Sherlock and John exchanged a look. Sherlock smirked.

The hutch was in the garden, and, sure enough, the small ball of fur that was the Guinea pig was lying in its hay. Sherlock easily managed to open the cage door and put his hand in, but withdrew it quickly, and the grave expression on his face told them all they needed to know.

“The way I see it,” Sally said as they walked back into the kitchen, Anderson carrying the Guinea pig in a plastic bag. “There are two ways of dying: naturally or murder. I think we can rule out all three of the family pets dying naturally within minutes of each other, so that leaves murder. And there are more two types of murder: intentional and unintentional. Now, it could be that the pets’ food supplies got contaminated with something without the family noticing, but that’s the only way I can see that they could have been unintentionally murdered.”

“I contest your use of the word ‘murder’ here,” Sherlock muttered.

“Excuse me, I wasn’t finished,” Sally said, and John’s respect for her surged a little. She had made Sherlock look sheepish. “So that just leaves old-fashioned straight-up intentional murder. But why would someone want to murder a dog, a cat, and a Guinea pig all at the same time?”

“Well, our list of suspects isn’t really that extensive,” John added, thinking aloud. “We’ve got students – Dickensians and the rest of the school, but more likely the Dickensians. Couldn’t have been a member of the family because all the pets were not cold enough to have died more than an hour ago, and all of the family have been out for at least an hour, if I remember rightly.”

Anderson nodded at him.

“There could have been a delayed-action murder, though,” Sherlock replied. “Some sort of method that doesn’t kill the victim until possibly hours later.”

John saw Anderson roll his eyes and crossed his arms, feeling his jaw clench.

“But why would someone want to kill their own pet?” Percy piped up from where he was curled in an arm chair in the corner of the room. John had forgotten he was in there.

“Exactly,” Sally agreed.

“Mrs Bradstreet does sometimes joke that her husband loves his pets more than he loves his kids,” Anderson added.

“That is true…” Percy conceded. “But she’s so sweet… unless she completely flipped, I wouldn’t have thought…” he trailed off, his eyes taking on a melancholic expression again. John felt sorry for the boy.

“It could easily have been a pupil,” Sherlock said. “HMs’ doors are always open – quite literally – so it’s no great stretch of the imagination to conceive how anyone could have just walked in and…” he made a vague gesture with his hand.

Anderson was nodding. “Someone with a grudge against him, perhaps… he does give detentions quite liberally.”

“He teaches Italian, yes?” Sherlock asked, and Anderson affirmed it. “And does he have any friction with any particular boys in the house?”

The other boy thought for a moment, running a hand through his floppy hair. “He caught a year nine smoking last week, but I can’t think of any long-term grudges,”

“What about Angelo?” Percy said absently. He was gazing at the wall.

John watched Sherlock closely. His face was a calm mask of composure and concentration.

“Oh, of course,” Anderson said. “Yeah, Angelo and him – you know Angelo, right? De Luca, he – ”

“Yeah, we’ve met,” John said curtly.

“In that case, you’ll know that he’s always in trouble – there basically hasn’t been a Friday evening that he hasn’t been in detention for something or other, and Bradstreet’s sick of it. They do not get on at all,”

Sally nodded. “Possible prime suspect, then,”

“We should search his room – maybe one of you could interrogate?” Anderson said.

However, Sherlock was shaking his head.

“What is it, Sherlock?” John asked.

“You’re jumping to conclusions, we have little to no evidence to support anything – never make assumptions,” he muttered, crouching down. John saw him reach under the table and after a fraction of a second of hesitation, slide the cat out and push her next to the dog. “Give me the Guinea pig,” he instructed.

Anderson frowned, but did as he was asked. Sherlock gently shook the rodent out onto the tiles next to the cat.

“What are you doing?” John asked, but his friend’s attention had been caught by something and he ignored him. He bent down and used two fingers to probe at the Guinea pig. After a moment, he straightened up and beckoned John over.

“There,” he said, indicating the back of the Guinea pig’s neck. John looked closer, and noticed a small patch of dried blood there, between the shoulders, at the base of the neck.

“It’s like…” John began, remembering a day he’d spent with his mother at the vets when he’d been young, one of those ‘bring your child to work days’, remembering her giving a cat an injection, between the shoulders, at the base of its neck. “Like someone gave it an injection.”

“It’s exactly like someone gave it an injection,” Sherlock said. “Now, if the others are congruous…”

“Then we’ll have something concrete,” John finished, and Sherlock nodded. They both began examining the other animals.

“Hey! You two mind telling us what’s going on?” Sally asked, and without turning to look at her, Sherlock explained.

“All of this fur is making it impossible,” John commented. “It was easier on the Guinea pig because its fur was so much thinner and lighter, but this is so much denser.”

“I’ll get a razor, hang on,” John heard Anderson say, heard him take a step, and then heard him stop and say, very quietly, “Oh.”

John turned around. A large man was standing in the doorway between the common room and the kitchen, a satchel across his body and an expression of disbelief and anger on his face. John poked Sherlock, who didn’t react at first, but when he noticed the silence that had descended upon the kitchen, turned around as well.

There was a pause that seemed to stretch on for eons.

“What in god’s name is going on?” Bradstreet asked.

“Sir, we, uh – ” Anderson stuttered, but Sherlock got to his feet and took a step towards the man in one swift movement.

“Sir, you may wish to take a seat,” he began, and John had never been so thankful for his friend’s ability to be calm in the most trying of situations.

Once Sherlock had finished explaining, all the anger had left Bradstreet’s gaze, and his brows were drawn together in confusion.

“But why would anyone want to…?” he asked quietly, and all traces of teacher-like sternness had been replaced by grief. John remembered what Anderson had said about Bradstreet loving his pets more than his kids and suddenly felt a wave of sympathy for the man.

“We don’t know, sir,” Sally said gently. “But we think it might have been Ange- ”

“That is simply a suggestion, we have no evidence yet,” John interrupted, seeing Bradstreet’s head whip up at the mention of Angelo’s name.

Anderson cleared his throat. “Sir, I don’t mean to be insensitive, but would you mind if we, well, shaved your pets?”

A few minutes later, Sherlock was sitting cross-legged on the Bradstreets’ kitchen floor with a small pile of fur by his feet, an electric razor in one hand, a magnifying glass in the other.

“The marks are there on all of the animals,” he was saying. “Small punctures just at the base of the neck. The injection was done clumsily enough to leave a mark - who-ever it was was certainly inexperienced. The dried blood around the marks means they were made before their deaths.”

“So, someone injected something into their bloodstream which killed them,” John said.

“Oh, Christ,” he heard Bradstreet moan from behind him. The man had his head in his hands.

John didn’t know what to say, but didn’t have to, as the sound of a motor outside could be heard, getting louder.

“Oh, Christ,” Bradstreet repeated. “That’s my wife and kids – I’ll have to go and…” he said, getting up and smoothing a hand through his hair. “I’ll just…” he said, walking into a corridor as if he’d forgotten where it went.

“Poor man,” John sighed.

“It can’t have been Angelo,” Sherlock said, and John tried not to resent his lack of empathy. “There’s no way he could have had access to a needle, or the sort of substances you’d need to inject to kill.”

“Surely anything in your veins that isn’t blood is enough to kill,” Sally said.

Sherlock looked at her. “What did he look like when he was dying? The dog?”

“Like he was trying to curl up against some sort of pain,” she said. “I tried to work out what was wrong with him, I tried to hold him, but – ”

“Wait, you touched him?” John asked. “Did you feel his pulse?”

Sally narrowed her eyes. “Yeah – irregular, very irregular, and faint, then not there at all, obviously.”

John glanced at Sherlock, who was watching him. “Sounds a bit like – I mean, I know you can’t tell, but, could it have been a heart attack?”

Sherlock cocked his head. “All three pets couldn’t have gone into cardiac arrest within minutes of each other, John,” he dismissed. “We established that it was some sort of injection.”

“No, that’s what I’m saying,” John insisted. “You know when you’re giving someone an injection and you have to get rid of the air bubbles?” He looked around for support, but saw blank faces except for Sherlock’s, whose gaze was intense and serious, but encouraging. “Because if you don’t and you push air into someone’s blood, it kills them almost instantly. So, I was just thinking, you might not need access to all sorts of chemicals to…” his voice faltered upon seeing no change in his companions’ expressions.

There was a pause.

“John,” Sherlock said solemnly, and John’s heart dropped. Sherlock got up and looked him directly in the eyes. “You are a genius.”

John felt his mouth drop open. “What?”

“Well, not quite a genius, but certainly above average,” Sherlock said, and suddenly he was off, buzzing, pacing, hands to his lips in the way that he did when an idea was unscrambling itself in his brain. “Air in the bloodstream basically induces a heart attack – someone only needed to have one needle to kill all three of these animals – I need to take blood samples.”

Sherlock started for the door, but turned back. “John, I need my syringe from house, can I trust you to maintain the crime scene in my absence?”

John saw Sally roll her eyes out of the corner of his. “Uh,” he said, tongue tied – it was so uncharacteristic of Sherlock to entrust anyone with anything that it threw him a little that apparently he considered John capable enough. Sherlock was waiting for an answer, though, one foot out the door, so he blurted out, “Yes, yeah, of course, go,” and before his brain could fill in the ‘thank you’ he would never have said aloud but felt as deeply as one feels love and hate and envy and sorrow, Sherlock was gone.

In the few minutes of his friend’s absence, John was called upon to explain to the Bradstreet family why it was probably not best to enter the kitchen, console the crying children, and assure an angry wife of Sherlock’s ability to help and not to hinder.

“You sure are devoted,” Anderson commented, when the family had retired to another part of the house and the three living had retired with the three dead.

John said nothing. He knew exactly what Anderson was implying with his raised eyebrows and folded arms.

“I just don’t understand how you can be around him without wanting to punch him,” Sally said casually. “Don’t you get sick of, well, everything to do with him?”

“Oddly enough, no,” John replied, trying to keep his voice as light as possible.

“Hm,” Sally said, considering him as if a particularly difficult algebraic equation. “Maybe you’re just as much of a freak as him.”

“Seriously, Sally, what is your problem with him?” John said before he could stop himself. The words had tumbled out of their own accord, but he had started now, so he may as well have finished. “You’re so intelligent, both of you, I’ve seen it, I know your grades – so why are you so immature? I get he can be annoying, but, Christ, can’t you just rise above it?”

“Is that what you do? Rise above it?” Anderson asked. “You think you’re so superior, John, but just wait until he turns on you. He might not have yet, but he is a genuinely bad person. You’re too blinded by… by something, that’s for sure. Or maybe you do see it, but the sex is too good to make you leave.”

John felt like sighing in frustration. How many times? “Here’s the thing: I’m not actually gay. Who knows about Sherlock bloody Holmes but what is certain is that, contrary to popular belief, we aren’t sleeping together.”

Anderson put up his hands. “No need to get defensive, chill out.”

“Look, John,” Sally said, her voice less accusative now. “All I’m saying is, one day, solving murders won’t be enough for him. One day, we’ll be hearing about some horrible killing on the news, and that boy will be the one responsible. So just be careful, yeah? Because psychopaths get bored.”

John swallowed.

“You know, it’s a good thing you’re on this side of the law,” John had said to Sherlock once, after he had explained to John how to hack into a teacher’s emails.

Sherlock had smiled. “I would be a spectacular criminal,” he’d replied.

John could see, sometimes, that Sherlock was close to an edge. The edge between what and what he wasn’t exactly sure, but he did sense a potential in his friend, like water underneath ice. He’d never felt even a semblance of unsafe in his friend’s presence, could only see humanity in his eyes. But John had wondered, in the depths of nights when he couldn’t sleep, what it would take to push Sherlock over that edge. And then felt horribly guilty, as Sherlock played him something on his violin, or deduced something just to make John laugh. John knew Sherlock as no others did: wholly, truly, deeply. And what made him human was his choice to be just that.

“Thanks for the concern,” John replied shortly, and Sally shrugged at him.

“Oh, stop fighting,” Sherlock said suddenly, and then he had swept back into the kitchen. He knelt by the animals, and John returned his mind to the case at hand.

Sherlock took blood samples from each of the animals, pocketed the vials, and stood up. He seemed to be waiting for someone to say something.

“Well, what now?” Anderson asked after a few moments of silence.

“Now, I’m going to test this blood for a particular enzyme that will denote whether it was, indeed, a heart attack that killed our poor furry friends. However, the important thing is that we determine the suspect.”

“I’m going after Angelo,” Sally said.

“I’m with her,” Anderson agreed.

“Do what you will,” Sherlock said, almost contentedly. “You’ll be wrong, but I’m sure the pursuit will be excellent practise for… for something or other.”

John frowned, but had no time to ask any of the thousands of questions perched on the tip of his tongue before Sherlock strode out of the kitchen, saying, “Coming, John?”

And, like always, John had no choice but to follow.

***

“Sherlock, you do realise that you just left three dead animals on someone’s kitchen floor with absolutely no explanation of your plan, if you do actually have one?” John was saying to his friend as they walked.

“Anderson can deal with all that, it’s his house master, his problem,” Sherlock replied briskly.

John sighed. “So what are we doing now?”

“Going to find Angelo before the other two do.”

“And where exactly will he be?”

“Is it not a Monday afternoon?”

John drew his eyebrows together. “Yes…?”

“So will he not be at the rugby practise you’re supposed to be at?”

“Ah, shit,” John spat, stopping in his tracks. “Why didn’t you remind me earlier?”

“No time for regrets now, John,” Sherlock dismissed, not breaking his stride. “Come on.”

John exhaled and rubbed his eyes, allowing himself one moment of indulgent self-pity before jogging to catch up.

***

Sherlock and John stood on the edge of the pitch, watching the practise.

“You’re going to have to go and extract him,” Sherlock instructed John.

“And how, exactly, am I supposed to do that? I’m in trouble already for not showing up – you know if you don’t attend every practise, they drop you from the squad?”

Sherlock shrugged. “And?”

John’s mouth fell open – again: he had a feeling he’d swallowed more flies than breaths that afternoon. “And then you’re dropped from the fucking squad, Sherlock, Jesus! Our biggest game’s next week and I want to end the season with all the praise of a champion – do you know how good that would look on my CV?”

“What, that you can throw a strangely-shaped ball whilst wearing spiky shoes? Hardly essential for a doctor.”

“It shows you’re a team player, you utter arse.”

“You sound like a careers advisor, John,” Sherlock commented, looking back over the rugby field. “And that’s not a good thing.”

John huffed. “Right, fine, whatever,” he grumbled, stepping onto the grass and making his way over to his coach, trying to think up some excuse.

Baynes, his coach, a huge man that looked like he had been moulded out of permanently wet clay, had his back to him, shouting at someone.

John cleared his throat.

The man turned around, and his expression immediately darkened. “Watson, what time do you call this? And you’re in your school uniform too – don’t tell me you’re injured, man, we need you next week.”

“No, sir, I’m not injured,” John began, but Baynes cut him off before he could explain.

“Excellent news! Now get back to house, get changed, get back here, and we’ll let this little slip go forgotten, yes?”

John swallowed. “The thing is, sir, I got wrapped up in – in something very serious. I’m not sure how much I can say about it, but I need – could I borrow Angelo for a moment?”

Baynes cocked his gargantuan head to one side. “You’re digging yourself a hole, here, boy.”

“I know, sir, I know,” John said hastily. “But this is really important.”

“So important that you can’t tell me what’s going on?”

“Well, I just – ”

“Sir, if you’ll excuse my intrusion,” came a deep voice from John’s right. He turned to see Sherlock standing next to him as if he’d always been there, his marble face serious but patient. “Our attention was called to three dead pets and now there are people who believe that Angelo De Luca is the murderer.”

Baynes showed his disbelief in the only way he knew how – through a string of colourful expletives. “And is he?”

“No, we are fairly certain he is not,” Sherlock continued swiftly. “But we will have no way to prove it if we do not speak to him before the others do, and that would result in one of your prized props being almost immediately expelled – not a good thing for the big match next week, I should think.”

Baynes simply stood in stunned silence, and Sherlock seemed to take that for consent.

“Thank you for your time,” Sherlock said, tapping John lightly and moving away, John hurriedly following suit.

Sherlock seemed to be making a beeline for Angelo, marching through the entire first rugby team, who all gradually ceased their drills and stared as this stranger made his way through their midst.

“Hi, guys,” John said as he passed.

“John…” one of them, God Staunton, said. “What the fuck?”

“Long story,” John replied. “I’m sure you’ll find out sooner or later.”

“…Right,” he heard God say behind him.

Angelo, when he realised he was the one Sherlock was after, stood a little straighter and John could have sworn he puffed out his chest a little – the kind of masculine posturing John couldn’t stand.

“Can I help you?” he asked, eyes cold.

“It’s more of a case of you being able to help yourself,” Sherlock replied.

Angelo frowned.

***

“So you say that you weren’t, in fact, anywhere near Dickens at the time of the…” the head master sighed, rubbing his eyes. “At the time of the murder?”

It was eight the following morning. The sky was the kind of blue that only comes with the flirtation with zero degrees.

“No, sir,” Angelo muttered.

The previous evening had been a blur of intensive conversation with Angelo, finally getting him to admit his less-than favourable alibi, then Sherlock running into the greying light, John following. The slapping of their school shoes against the concrete until they were out of the school’s boundaries. Walking under the purpling sky. Sherlock’s pale skin against the blue of the evening. Quick conversation. The village’s smoking chimneys. Banging on the door of the head of the local police. Trying not to sound like deluded schoolboys. The falling blackness, peppered by stars, aeroplanes, satellites. Finally, finally, getting him to understand. The relief. The anxiety. Sherlock’s pale skin against the darkness of the night. The walk back to school. Their breaths in the quiet air. Sneaking through Lestrade’s garden. Sudden laughter. Some stupid joke about Lestrade owning a rabbit. Shushing themselves, each other. Giggling in the bathroom, hearing each other giggle in the shower. The sobering with the return to normality, looking at their timetables for the following day. John making a half-hearted attempt at homework. Sherlock pacing for what felt like hours, John telling him stories from his old life – he had called it that, his old life – to distract him from the unease he knew he felt at the case having been taken out of his hands. Telling him about Mary, about Dan, about his father. Sherlock returning very little, but the eventual slowing and sitting, the wide eyes in the low light.

Neither would remember, later, when they dropped off to sleep, but each would maintain that they outlasted the other.

“Well, then, where were you?” the Head Master prompted impatiently.

“I was…” Angelo began, glancing to John and Sherlock, standing on either side of him, for reassurance. John gave him an almost imperceptible nod. “I was carjacking.”

“In broad daylight?”

“Attempting to,” the head of the local police, DI Martin, added. “We found the car. It was virtually undisturbed, and we’re getting a specialist in this morning to dust for his prints, but his alibis seem to match up. I’ve done checks this morning. It is doubtful you’ll find any evidence that he could have been anywhere else but the carpark of the local pub, rather badly carjacking.”

“Right,” the head master said. “It’s not every day that you hear a young man trying to convince you that he was, in fact, committing a crime.”

“No, sir; it is rather unusual, which is why we ask you to be sympathetic with his punishment, as this situation is rather an exceptional case,” Sherlock interjected slickly, and John had to admire him for his boldness.

The man regarded the boys before him for a moment, before exhaling wearily. “Listen, boys, we don’t have the physical evidence from the police, and I haven’t heard from Anderson and Donovan yet, so let me go through the proper procedures and then come up with a solution.”

After a few more words, the company gathered in the head master’s office disbanded.

“Why are you being so nice to Angelo?” John asked him as they walked back to house. “I thought you hated his guts.”

Sherlock sighed. “He’s smokescreens, John. He’s transparent, he’s just insecurities hidden behind all that hyper-masculinity.”

John supposed Sherlock was right. Remembering what he had said during their encounter in the town a few weeks ago, John realised Angelo was made incredibly vulnerable by his stereotypical projection of the manliness he probably thought, somewhere deep within him, that he was lacking.

“Plus, it’s a chance to rub my victory in Anderson’s greasy little face,” Sherlock added.

John gave him a despairing look, but Sherlock only smiled knowingly.

***

They still had had no word of the progress of the case by the next morning, which had driven Sherlock up the wall, and John wasn’t exactly feeling the most relaxed about it either.

However, John was sitting in assembly, Sherlock on his right, not paying attention, as usual, when the Head Master uttered the name ‘Bradstreet’ into the microphone, jerking John back to reality.

“…the tragic loss of all three of his family’s pets, many of whom will have been known to a lot of you – Jingles, Jenny and Jade – ”

“What a weird name for a Guinea pig,” John commented.

“His kids’ names all begin with J as well,” Sherlock replied.

“That’s definitely weird,” John whispered.

“ – and so he would appreciate a little consideration if you see him or his family around school,” the man was saying. “We are still unsure of the culprit, as it was, indeed, for lack of a more sensitive term, murder. However, four of our Lower Sixth brought the matter to our attention, and we have alerted the police, so don’t be surprised if you get asked to answer some of their questions.”

“That means it wasn’t Angelo,” John whispered to his friend.

Sherlock nodded, and there was the slightest upturn of his mouth that hinted at what John knew would be his satisfaction at his ‘success’.

***

The next day in his chemistry lesson, John could feel Anderson and Sally glaring daggers at the back of his head, and he could only just fight the somewhat smug smile he could feel on his own features.

***

Sherlock was translating a passage in Latin, something dull and dry about ancient Roman governance, when he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket.

It was another email forwarded to him by John, who had added:

Looks like we’re the new Ant and Dec…

Sherlock rolled his eyes and scrolled down.

Hi John,

First of all, let me thank you once again for your contribution to the latest edition of the Herald. I have to run everything past the head of the English department before we go to print, and he complimented your writing, even though it was such a short piece.

In said piece, you mentioned your friend Sherlock, and it is about him that I wanted to speak with you. You said that he’d taken you on many ‘wild goose chases’, and of course everyone has heard of your blossoming relevance as a sort of vigilante duo – with Lottie (a good friend of mine), Mohammad, and now, the three Js! (Yes, your names weren’t mentioned in assembly, but who else could it have been?) You may not have realised, but you really are becoming a household name throughout the school, or rather, yours and Sherlock’s – it seems one is never said without the other these days.

Because your writing about your house art piece showed that you are obviously competent with a pen in hand, and because you seem to be one half of the school’s celebrity double act, I was wondering if you’d be willing to write something for the next edition of the Herald.

Sherlock sighed and stopped reading. He didn’t need to see any more. He sent John a text.

Sherlock:You’ve already agreed, haven’t you?

John:Actually, no – I was going to ask your consent first

This confused Sherlock a little.

Sherlock:Why would you need my consent?

John:Why would I not? I’m going to be writing about you, after all, you numpty

Sherlock, for once, couldn’t think of how to word a reply, but before he had to, another message came in.

John:So do I have it? Your consent?

He did, of course he did – but Sherlock didn’t know how to put it. So he went with humour.

Sherlock:I’ll have to consult Mycroft…?

John:What, seriously?

Sherlock:No, of course not!

John:So is that a yes?

Sherlock:Christ, yes it is, stop pestering me!

John sent him another message, something about ‘you gotta have consent’ and ‘check yourself before you wreck yourself’, but Sherlock didn’t bother replying.

***

Over the next few days, John concentrated on returning to normality, even with the case of the three Js (Kitty’s playful name for it had stuck) ticking over in the background, his article for the Herald, and preparations for the house rugby competition. On top of all that, despite the end of the term approaching rapidly, his teachers seemed to be setting even more homework than usual, and even Sherlock was actually sitting down to study before ten at night - a first for him, and a worrying sign of the true severity of the mounting pressure.

With his mind more than sufficiently occupied, therefore, John found himself waking on the morning of the house rugby competition and remembering almost nothing of the previous few days.

“Are you coming to support today, then?” John asked Sherlock at breakfast.

“Support what?” the other boy replied absently, occupied with trying to fish something out of his cereal.

“Us, Doyle,” John elaborated. He wasn’t even annoyed at Sherlock’s question - he had simply grown used to his friend knowing next to nothing about anyone else’s commitments than his own. “Me.”

“Oh, house rugby, yes, how could I have forgotten,” Sherlock said sarcastically – it had been the only thing Lestrade had been talking about for the previous week. John thought he was more excited than the boys.

“So is that a yes?”

“What does my presence matter?” Sherlock said, now having given up with his spoon and dipping his finger into the milk.

John frowned. “Well, it would be nice to have you there,” he said.

“Why, though? You’ll have lots of other supporters, it’s not as if you’re an unpopular person.”

“Yeah, but…” John floundered, trying to put into words something that he’d never had to put into words before. It was simply assumed that practically the entire school would be there supporting someone or other, even the girls, who had had their house hockey competition couple of days previously.  John had gone to watch Jeannette play, but her house had not been very successful, and so conversation afterwards hadn’t been pleasant. They hadn’t fought, exactly – their relationship was still in a grey area anyway, so there wasn’t really anything to fight about – but John doubted whether she would support Doyle or someone else. He hadn’t even spoken to her about it. “It would just be nice to have you, that’s all.”

Sherlock didn’t say anything for a moment, finally extracting what looked like fluff from a jumper out of his food. Then, “I was planning on looking into the triple murder a little further this afternoon.”

John tried not to let his exasperation filter into his tone of voice – they’d talked about this the night before: Sherlock was still restless about the fact that they still hadn’t caught the murderer. “There’s nothing more you can do – it’s with the police now and the pets have been buried. I still don’t see how you can find anything more out about it.”

Sherlock didn’t reply, and John was more than a little glad. Their previous conversations about it had just gone around in circles.

***

After lunch, the atmosphere in Doyle had become palpable, thick with stress and excitement. John could feel it as soon as he stepped through the door.

Boys were rushing to and fro, shouting to one another – “Do you have a spare house top?” “Can I borrow your shorts?” – and Lestrade was standing in the middle of it, seemingly talking to five boys at once.

“Hi, sir,” John greeted him as he and Sherlock wandered into the common room.

“John, thank god,” Lestrade exclaimed when he saw them. “Finally someone sensible in this madhouse. Could you please find your teammates and tell them to, first of all, calm the fu- to calm down, to find a mascot if they haven’t already, and to find some paint and bring it into the common room? Thanks.”

“Uh,” John said, not sure what half of those instructions even meant, but Sherlock was tugging on his arm.

“Just find Mike, he’ll know what to do,” he said, leading John out of the common room and up the stairs.

John did just that, and his search for the bespectacled boy led him to room nineteen, where Mike was pulling his house jersey over his head.

“What’s up, John?”

John explained what Lestrade had said, and, thankfully, Mike said he’d handle it, and told him to change and meet him downstairs in five. So John did.

“Any more thoughts on your plans for this afternoon?” John asked Sherlock while he was changing.

The other boy was rummaging about in a drawer and didn’t answer.

“Come and at least get some house colours on you, Sherlock.”

Again, no answer.

“Suit yourself,” John huffed, undoing his shirt and turning his back on his friend.

“If I come to a match – a match, one – will you stop talking my ear off about it?” Sherlock asked wearily. John didn’t think his tone was entirely justified, but living with Sherlock was all about negotiation sometimes.

“Sherlock, that would be lovely of you, how sweet of you to offer!” John said, and knew his friend would be rolling his eyes.

Once John was all kitted out, he and Sherlock traipsed downstairs, following the hubbub of voices emanating from the common room.

John opened the door on utter chaos. Lestrade was standing on the arm of a sofa, yelling at people occasionally. One of the artier boys had supplied acrylic paints in the house colours of blue and as close to maroon as he could find, and most of the house was clustered around them like fl